Ringworm (Tinea Corporis): Symptoms, Causes, & Treatment

By Zina Semenovskaya, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
March 17, 2020

Tinea corporis, otherwise known as ringworm, is likely the most common fungal skin infection (dermatophyte infection) in children worldwide. Nearly half of ringworm cases in the U.S. occur in children under 15 years old, typically affecting males more often than females. Although a ringworm infection is uncomfortable, it is easily treatable and early intervention is vital to prevent the condition from spreading to others.

What Is Ringworm?

Despite its name, ringworm is not caused by worms. Ringworm is caused by a fungus, and the name comes from the superficial infections on the scalp and skin that look like round spots surrounded by red scaly rings. These infections are mildly irritating and may cause hair loss if it infects the skin on the scalp.

Ringworm is also called “tinea” or “dermatophytosis.” There are several different types of ringworm, typically named for the location of the ringworm:

  • Tinea corporis: Ringworm of the body, mainly of non-hairy (glabrous) skin.
  • Tinea faciei: Ringworm of the face. This is uncommon and is often misdiagnosed as psoriasis, rosacea, contact or allergic dermatitis, or other non-fungal skin conditions.
  • Tinea capitis: Ringworm of the scalp and hair shafts. This scalp fungus is most common in toddlers and school-age children.

Ringworm should be treated as early as possible because it is highly contagious.

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Ringworm Symptoms

The first signs of tinea corporis, or a ringworm infection on the body, are red, scaly patches, of which there may be one or several. At first, they may not look like rings but you’ll notice that they begin to expand, stopping at about one inch in diameter. Once they’ve grown to half an inch in diameter, you can see red scaly rings. Your child may find them itchy and uncomfortable.

Early stage tinea capitis, or ringworm of the scalp, is similar to tinea corporis, but as the rings expand, you may notice that the hair within the infected area becomes brittle or falls out. The hair that has broken off near the scalp may leave black dots, scaly, red areas, or bald spots that may be tender or painful. Tinea capitis does not always leave obvious rings and can easily be confused with dandruff.

Ringworm can also affect babies, though it is unlikely to cause any long-term harm. If you suspect your baby has ringworm, it’s worth a visit to their pediatrician. Your doctor can assess if their symptoms are due to a common infant rash, or if they’re a result of ringworm. A topical cream can easily clear your baby’s symptoms.

How Do You Get Ringworm?

Ringworm is caused by mold-like fungi called dermatophytes. T. rubrum, T. tonsurans, T. mentagrophytes, M. canis, and E. floccosum are the most common causes of tinea corporis in the U.S.

Ringworm infections start when dermatophytes (disease causing fungi) attack dead tissues in the hair, nails, and dandruff. As this local bacterial infection progresses, your child’s immune reactions allow dermatophytes to attack healthy, living skin and turn it red and itchy.

Ringworm is contagious and can spread from:

  • Human to human: Infected children can easily spread ringworm through direct skin-to-skin contact.
  • Object to human: Sharing or touching infected clothing, towels, bed linens, hats, brushes, and hair accessories can increase the likelihood of contracting ringworm.
  • Animal to human: Infected pets can pass ringworm to your children, particularly puppies and kittens. Your child can also contract ringworm from grooming or petting infected animals like cows, goats, pigs, and horses.

Diagnosing Ringworm

Diagnosing ringworm is fairly straightforward. Your child’s pediatrician can usually diagnose ringworm of the scalp or body just by looking closely at the infected area and asking you a few questions about your child’s symptoms.

If needed, your doctor may also take a sample of hair or skin from the infected area to be examined by microscope in a laboratory. This would confirm if your child has a fungal skin infection consistent with ringworm.

Ringworm Treatment

Ringworm is usually treated with oral antifungal medications, or with topical treatments including creams and shampoos. Topical treatments are best for milder cases of ringworm.

Commonly prescribed antifungal medications include griseofulvin (Gris-Peg) and terbinafine (Lamisil) which may need to be taken for six weeks to completely eradicate the fungal infection. Both of these ringworm medicines have common side effects, including diarrhea and an upset stomach. It’s a good idea to give your child these medications with high-fat foods like peanut butter or ice cream.

Your doctor may also recommend that you wash your child’s hair with a prescription-strength medicated shampoo, or that you treat the infected skin with a prescription-strength cream, to remove fungal spores. These antifungal creams include:

  • Clotrimazole (Cruex, Desenex, Lotrimin)
  • Miconazole (Monistat-Derm)
  • Ketoconazole (Nizoral)
  • Terbinafine (Lamisil)

These topical treatments may be enough to stop mild ringworm infections from spreading to other areas of your child’s body, and to prevent your child from transmitting ringworm to others.

Ringworm Prevention

Ringworm prevention is not easy because these fungal infections are very common and especially contagious. Nevertheless, there are some steps you can take to reduce the likelihood that your child will contract ringworm, including:

  • Educating yourself and others: Understand and teach your children about the risk of getting ringworm from pets or other infected children so that they know what to watch out for and avoid.
  • Avoiding infected animals: Children should know to avoid animals who have a patch of skin where fur is missing. There may not always be noticeable signs of disease, so make sure your pets are regularly checked by a veterinarian for ringworm and other common conditions.
  • Not sharing personal items: Children should also know that although ‘sharing is caring,’ sharing their clothing, towels, hairbrushes, and other personal items, or borrowing these items from other children, is not a good idea as it can spread infections.
  • Shampooing regularly: Make sure you wash your child’s scalp regularly, especially after haircuts.
  • Practicing good hygiene: As with all contagious infections, your child should be washing their hands often with soap. Make sure your child is regularly bathed and properly dried afterwards because dermatophytes prefer warmth, moisture, and sweaty skin. Make sure to keep places where children are close together clean, such as schools, child care centers, gyms, and locker rooms.

Home Remedies for Ringworm

Home remedies for ringworm can be very effective for some people. These home remedies include topical treatments, and are only effective if they are consistently applied multiple times a day at the onset of your child’s symptoms. Not all remedies work for everyone, and it’s difficult to say which treatment will be most effective.

The following substances can be applied daily to clear, dry skin to help with your child’s infection and even help prevent future infections:

  • Garlic paste
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Aloe vera
  • Coconut oil
  • Grapefruit seed extract
  • Turmeric
  • Powdered licorice
  • Tea tree oil
  • Oil of oregano
  • Lemongrass oil

It’s a good idea to consult with your child’s doctor to determine if home remedies or prescription antifungal medication are best for clearing your child’s infection. Sometimes several medications are needed to effectively treat the infection.

Risk Factors and Complications

Your child is at a higher risk of tinea corporis if they:

  • Live in a warm climate
  • Have close contact with an infected person or animal
  • Share clothing, bedding, or towels with someone who has a fungal infection
  • Wear tight or restrictive clothing
  • Have a weak immune system

Ringworm is a superficial skin infection and rarely spreads beyond the surface of your child’s skin. Children with weak immune systems may find it difficult to get rid of the infection.

When to See a Doctor

It’s time to go and see a doctor if your child is showing any symptoms of ringworm. This is especially true if your child is also suffering from swollen lymph nodes or a low-grade fever.

If you have decided to try an at-home treatment or an over-the-counter antifungal product and your child’s symptoms have not cleared up within two weeks, you should make an appointment with their pediatrician. The doctor may prescribe a topical cream or shampoo, or in the case of more advanced infections, stronger antifungal tablets.

If you have a job or lifestyle that makes you more susceptible to catching or spreading ringworm, like if you’re a teacher or athlete, you should see your doctor promptly.

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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 doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

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.

Zina Semenovskaya, MD

Dr. Semenovskaya specializes in emergency medicine, and received her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently the medical director at Remote Emergency Medicine Consulting, LLC and splits her time working clinically as an emergency medicine attending in California and Alaska. She is the first of our doctors to be fluent in Russian.