Symptoms of Ringworm

Despite its name, ringworm is not caused by a worm.

It's a fungal infection that causes a raised, red, scaly rash that typically forms in circular or ring-shaped patches. It's contagious, meaning that people get ringworm from skin-to-skin contact with an infected person (or animal).

Ringworm may not show up in the classic ring shape on certain areas of the body. On the scalp, hands and feet, groin, or beard area, ringworm may simply cause a scaly, itchy rash without the circular shape.

This article explains the signs of ringworm and the many different types—from ringworm of the scalp to ringworm of the feet. Complications are unlikely, but learn what they are and how they're treated.

ringworm symptoms

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Frequent Symptoms

Anyone can get ringworm, but it's particularly common in children. If you're exposed to ringworm, you can expect to see a rash on your skin four to 10 days later. Ringworm of the scalp takes somewhat longer to develop, or between 10 and 14 days.

Ringworm symptoms can vary depending on the affected region of the body. For example, ringworm rashes on the stomach can look very different compared to ringworm on the scalp.

The first sign of ringworm is often a small, red, scaly area of skin—no matter where it breaks out on the body. Just before the rash appears, you may feel some minor burning or itching.

Ringworm is generally red, but the rash may be brown or gray. The many types include:

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Ringworm of the Body
 DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Ringworm of the body (Tinea Corporis)

Ringworm of the body spawns a rash on the trunk, arms, and legs. First, you'll find a small, scaly area on the skin that itches. The scaly area progresses quickly to form a slightly raised, ring-shaped rash. As the rash spreads, the rings grow in diameter. The rings aren't always circular; they can also grow in an irregular shape. You may have just one ring or several, and they may remain separate or overlap. The skin inside the ring may be clear and appear normal or have red and flaky patches. Sometimes the rash resembles a bullseye. Eventually, small blisters may form, causing oozing and crusting.

Ringworm of the face (Tinea Faciei)

Ringworm on the face can take on the classic ring-shaped rash, but not always. Instead, you may just notice raised, red, scaly patches that itch.

Ringworm of the beard area (Tinea Barbae)

For men, ringworm can also appear in the beard area. Ringworm in the beard area causes crusty, flaky areas of skin. The hair can break or fall out, causing bald patches in the beard. Ringworm here often forms bumps and blisters that can be confused with acne or folliculitis.

Ringworm of the scalp (Tinera Capitis)

You're unlikely to see a ring on the scalp. Instead, you'll have flaky, itchy patches. These patches can be red, silvery gray, or crusty yellow. Your hair can get brittle and break or fall out easily. Very often, it causes bald patches. Scalp ringworm is fairly common in toddlers and school-age children.

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Ringworm of the Feet AKA "Athlete's Foot"
DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND 

Ringworm of the feet AKA "athlete's foot" (Tinea Pedis)

Athlete's foot is caused by the same group of fungi (dermatophytes) that cause ringworm. But instead of a ring-shaped rash, you'll get dry, peeling, itchy skin, especially between the toes. Your feet might burn or sting. After a while, the sole of your foot may thicken like a callus. Athlete's foot is common in teens and adults and rare before adolescence.

Ringworm of the groin area AKA "jock itch" (Tinea Cruris)

Like athlete's foot, jock itch is caused by the same group of fungi that cause ringworm. Jock itch causes a red-brown rash in the creases of the skin around the groin. It can spread to the thighs, buttocks, and stomach. The rash is scaly and raised. It often itches, but not always. It may be painful. Jock itch is more common in men than women. Like athlete's foot, it is rare in children.

Ringworm of the hands (Tinea Manus)

Ringworm can also appear on the hands. If it appears on the back of the hands, you'll likely get the classic itchy, ring-shaped rash. On the palms and between the fingers, though, you may mistake it for dry skin because of dryness, peeling, and cracking. You may also notice thickening of the skin, like a callus.

Ringworm of the nails (Tinea Unguium)

Also called onychomycosis, this fungal infection can affect the nail. It can happen in both the fingernails and the toenails, but tends to be more common in the toes. The nails often become discolored, thickened, and brittle. They may even lift off the nail bed.

Possible Complications

Serious complications from ringworm are rare. In the vast majority of cases, ringworm goes away quickly with treatment. Keep your eyes open for:

Spreading

The biggest complication to stay alert for is the ringworm spreading to other areas of your body. It doesn't take much: Merely touching the infected spot before touching another can cause an outbreak.

Dark marks

After ringworm has healed, some people may find a dark mark left in its place. This is called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. These marks can happen after an inflammatory wound, like a ringworm rash, has healed. Some people are more prone to developing post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. It's more common in people who have dark complexions.

Secondary infections

Secondary bacterial infections can also happen if bacteria invade broken skin. These infections can be more common in children because they are more likely to give in to scratching, breaking the skin, and allowing opportunistic bacteria to take hold. Signs of a secondary bacterial infection include redness, pain, swelling, pimple-like bumps, heat, and oozing. If the fungal infection is left untreated in the nails for a long period of time, the nails may slowly lose their shape.

Abscess

A type of abscess called a kerion can also develop if you are sensitive to the fungi that cause ringworm or if it is left untreated. Kerions most commonly develop on the scalp but can develop anywhere you have ringworm.

As large, inflamed, pus-filled lumps, they feel mushy and typically cause bald patches where they form.

These bald patches can be temporary or permanent, depending on how much damage has been done to the skin. Some people also get a fever and generally feel unwell.

Deep or widespread infections

Although rare, the fungi that cause ringworm can sometimes cause a deeper infection called Mojocchi's granuloma. Ringworm typically affects just the surface of the skin, called the epidermis.

In Mojocchi granuloma, the fungus travels down the hair follicle and infects the deeper skin layers, called the dermis. Topical treatments can rarely reach these deeper areas, so oral medications are needed to treat Mojocchi granuloma.

Widespread fungal infection, where the fungus grows unchecked over large areas of the body, is rare but can happen in people who have compromised immune systems, such as those who have HIV/AIDS or who are undergoing chemotherapy.

Recap

Ringworm may disappear as quickly as it showed up. Until it does, prevent it from spreading by not touching the infected area and then somewhere else on your body in quick succession. Also, keep your eyes open for secondary infections, which can break out if bacteria seeps into broken skin.

When to See a Doctor

In most cases, ringworm isn't a serious problem. But certain symptoms warrant a trip to your primary healthcare provider, who can help you avoid future complications of the infection:

  • You've used an OTC anti-fungal medication for two weeks with no improvement.
  • You have ringworm on the scalp. Treating scalp ringworm as soon as possible is important to help prevent hair loss.
  • You have ringworm over large areas of your body, or it's spreading quickly.
  • Your ringworm patches have become infected (and also swollen, oozing, hot, or painful).
  • You're not sure if what you have is really ringworm. Any time you have an unidentified rash, it should be checked by a physician.

Ringworm Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Woman

In most cases, ringworm can treated easily. But you don't want to ignore it.

Summary

It often, but not always, shows up as a raised, red, scaly rash that forms in circular or ring-shaped patches. It's ringworm, and it can show up on virtually any part of the body. When it does, it can look different, too. Ringworm can spawn several complications, but perhaps the riskiest of all is that it's so contagious: You can get ringworm from skin-to-skin contact with an infected person.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does ringworm look like on the face?

    Ringworm on the face is called tinea faciei. It's not the same as ringworm that affects the hair or beard. The rash it causes tends to have distinct borders and spread. Other symptoms include itching and burning, especially if the rash is exposed to the sun. Tinea faciei can also form an fungal abscess called a kerion.

  • How does ringworm change if it isn't treated?

    Ringworm usually doesn't get better on its own, so the symptoms are likely to worsen if it goes untreated. Areas of hair loss on the scalp or beard can become larger, for example. Untreated ringworm can also cause skin to blister and crack, leaving it open to bacterial infection. And because ringworm is highly contagious, it can spread to other parts of the body if it isn't managed.

  • What conditions can be mistaken for ringworm?

    Because ringworm does not always appear on flat areas of skin and take on the classic round shape, a variety of conditions can cause similar symptoms as ringworm. Among them:

    • On the skin: Disorders such as psoriasis, eczema, and chronic dermatitis;infections such as cellulitis and impetigo; Bowen disease and melanoma
    • On the scalp: Dandruff and alopecia areata (hair loss)
    • On the toenails and feet: Onycholysis (separation of the nail from the nail bed), ingrown toenails, nail pitting, trauma to the toes that could be caused by friction from too-tight shoes or pedicures, chronic paronychia (another type of fungal infection that can affect toenails)
    • On the genitals: Lichen planus (which can swell the skin and cause redness)
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