Is Ringworm Contagious? What to Know

By Nena Luster DNP, MBA, FNP-BC
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
August 3, 2022

If you notice an itchy circular rash with clearer skin in the middle, you may have ringworm. Don’t be alarmed.

Having ringworm does not mean that you have a worm buried under your skin that’s causing the rash. The condition gets its name from its ring-like appearance.

It is usually spread through direct skin contact with an infected person or animal, or, in some cases, the environment.

While ringworm affects adults, it is generally more common in children and animals.

Whether you contract it on your skin or scalp, ringworm can be uncomfortable and very frustrating, as this contagious fungal infection can cause your skin to flake and itch.

Fortunately, there are many treatment options that are effective in getting rid of ringworm, along with prevention methods to stop the spread. 

In this article, I’ll talk about the symptoms of ringworm, explain how it’s spread, and how it can be treated.

I’ll outline some prevention methods, and tell you when to see a doctor about ringworm.

Symptoms 

After coming into contact with the fungi that causes ringworm, symptoms will usually begin to appear in 4-14 days.

Ringworm can affect almost any part of the body, including fingernails and toenails.

Symptoms will vary depending on the location of the body that becomes infected, but generally include:

  • Red, scaly circular or oval area of skin anywhere on the body, but particularly the buttocks, legs, arms, or torso
  • Itchy skin
  • Slightly raised, expanding rings
  • Discolored, thick, or brittle fingernails or toenails

Symptoms of ringworm on various parts of the body include:

  • Feet (tinea pedis): Red, swollen, itchy skin between the toes, particularly the pinky toe, is a sign of ringworm (athlete’s foot) on your feet. The skin may begin to peel and be sensitive to touch. In more severe cases, blisters may form on your feet.
    Groin (tinea cruris): Also known as “jock itch”, ringworm on the groin appears as scaly, itchy, red spots, and can be very uncomfortable. It will typically appear in the skin folds of your thigh. 
    Scalp (tinea capitis): Ringworm on the scalp is typically more common in children than adults. It appears as usually a red, itchy, circular bald spot that may be scaly to touch. The bald spot can grow in size. Multiple bald spots (hair loss) are signs that the infection is spreading.
    Beard (tinea barbae): Itchy, red spots on the cheeks, chin, beard, and upper neck are symptoms of ringworm. These spots can be scaly to touch. They might crust over or fill with pus. Hair loss is also a likely symptom of tinea barbae. 

Think you may have ringworm? Chat with a provider through K Health today.

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How Ringworm Spreads 

Ringworm is caused by mold-like fungi that lives on the cells in the outer layer of your skin.

It can be spread in various ways, typically through other humans, animals, and the environment.

  • Human to human: Ringworm often spreads by direct, skin-to-skin contact with an infected area.
    Animal to human: Touching an animal with ringworm, especially cats and dogs, can cause you to contract the infection. You can also get ringworm from other animals, including cattle, goats, rabbits, and birds.
    Object to human: A person or animal with ringworm who touches an object or surface can spread that infection to another human who then comes into contact with the object or surface. This is less common.
    The environment to human: In rare cases, ringworm can be contracted if a human comes into contact with infected soil. However, the likelihood is low; the person would need prolonged exposure for the infection to occur. 

Pets 

If you have just gotten a new pet, it is important that you take them to the vet for a check-up.

Many animals can transmit ringworm to people, especially dogs and cats—kittens and puppies can be likely carriers of the infection.

A tell-tale sign that your puppy or kitten has ringworm is that they may have hairless, circular, or irregularly shaped patches of scaling, redness, or crusting.

You may notice them scratching these areas too. 

It can be more difficult to detect ringworm on animals due to their fur – adult animals, especially long-haired cats and dogs, do not always show symptoms.

If the claws are affected, you may notice that they may have a whitish, opaque appearance and the claw itself may be brittle and shredding.

Contact a veterinarian for a check-up if you suspect your pet has ringworm.

Is There an Incubation Period? 

In humans, the incubation period for ringworm is typically one to two weeks.

For ringworm of the skin, symptoms can emerge 4-10 days after initial contact and slowly worsens.

In cases where the scalp is infected, the incubation period can be a little longer (10-14 days). 

How Long is Someone Contagious With Ringworm? 

Ringworm is highly contagious and can remain contagious for some time even after starting treatment.

Since ringworm is caused by contact with various types of fungi, a person or animal will remain contagious for as long as any of the fungus spores remain alive.

Ringworm should be completely gone after completing treatment, making a person not contagious anymore. 

Will Ringworm Go Away on Its Own? 

Without treatment, ringworm may go away on its own in a healthy person, but this is not always the case.

It is advised that you seek medical care if you suspect you have ringworm.

There are several treatment options available that can clear up ringworm quickly and prevent the infection from spreading to other areas of the body or to other people.

Treatment Options 

There is a range of treatment options available both over-the-counter and by prescription for ringworm, depending on the area of the body that is infected and the severity of the infection. 

  • Ringworm on the skin: Including athlete’s foot and jock itch, ringworm on the skin can usually be treated with over-the-counter antifungal creams, lotions, or powders that are applied directly to the infected site for 2-4 weeks. These include clotrimazole (Lotrimin, Mycelex), miconazole, terbinafine (Lamisil), and ketoconazole (Xolegel). Always read the label and use only as directed. Contact your healthcare provider if the infection doesn’t go away or continues to spread. Prescription medication may be needed.
  • Ringworm on the scalp: When the infection is located on your scalp, it can be harder to treat. It typically requires prescription antifungal medications. Your healthcare provider will likely prescribe you oral medicines to be taken for 1-3 months. These treatments include griseofulvin (Grifulvin V, Gris-PEG), terbinafine, itraconazole (Onmel, Sporanox), and fluconazole (Diflucan). 

Prescription Medication 

If you suspect you or your child has ringworm of the scalp, speak with your healthcare provider.

Ringworm of the scalp can be more stubborn and difficult to get rid of, so prescription medication is usually required.

Hair loss often occurs to the area of the ringworm.

In severe cases of ringworm of the skin, oral antifungal medications may be necessary to clear the infection. 

Prevention

Because ringworm is highly contagious, it is important that you regularly disinfect your environment.

The fungal spores can live on objects such as bedding, towels, couch cushions, and other surfaces.

Consider the following prevention methods:

  • Keep your skin clean and dry, including drying your feet thoroughly after you shower.
  • Avoid touching the ringworm lesion, and wash your hands thoroughly after treating the lesion with topical ointments. 
  • Wear open-toed shoes that allow your feet to breathe and stay dry.
  • Avoid walking barefoot on surfaces that are wet or may be contaminated such as public restrooms, showers, or pools.
  • Regularly change your socks and underwear. 
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and running water after touching pets or other animals that may have ringworm.
  • Don’t wear heavy clothing for too long in warm, humid environments where you are likely to sweat.
  • Keep your fingernails and toenails short and clean.
  • Don’t share clothing, towels, sheets, or other personal items with others.
  • Regularly wash your sheets, towels, and clothing, and dry them thoroughly before storing them away.
  • If you’re an athlete involved in close contact sports, don’t share sports gear with other players. Keep your uniform and sports gear clean and dry, and shower immediately after your practice session or match.

Think you may have ringworm? Chat with a provider through K Health today.

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When to See a Medical Professional

In some cases, ringworm can go away on its own without treatment.

This generally takes a lot longer than treating it with over-the-counter medications.

Ringworm of the scalp and more severe cases will require prescription medications and a visit to a medical professional.

If you are treating ringworm with medicine and symptoms persist or get worse, speak with a healthcare provider. 

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a healthcare provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long is ringworm contagious for?
Ringworm is caused by contact with various types of fungi and can remain contagious as long as the fungus spores stay alive—regardless of whether the person or animal has started receiving treatment. Fungus spores can live for months on a person or animal, so it is important to complete prescribed medications, have animals treated, and disinfect the home.
Can you be around someone with ringworm?
Direct contact with the skin is needed to spread ringworm. However, ringworm is highly contagious, so it is best to exercise caution when engaging with someone who has the infection.
How do I stop ringworm from spreading?
There are various ways you can stop the spread of ringworm, but the main way is to disinfect all surfaces regularly and have animals checked for possible infections. Wash your hands with soap and running water, and don’t share any personal items with others, including towels, bedding, clothes, or sports gear.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Nena Luster DNP, MBA, FNP-BC

Nena Luster is a board certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 14 years of experience including emergency medicine, urgent care, and family practice.