Family doctor





Ringworm is a common infection in children and is responsible for athlete's foot and jock itch in adults. This article looks at how to treat and prevent the infection.


  • Ringworm is not actually a worm but a fungal infection
  • Fungal infection is involved in athlete's foot and jock itch
  • It is known as a "tinea" infection
  • The infection is spread through contact with infected people, animals or soil
  • Ringworm looks like a round or oval sore with a red outline, and can be itchy
  • The infection is treated with anti-fungal ointment or medication in severe cases

What is it?

Ringworm is known medically as a tinea infection. It is caused by a fungal infection, not a worm, and it is very common.

The fungal infection is involved in athlete's food and jock itch, but can appear anywhere on the body.

Moist and dark conditions favor the infection, that is why it is much more common between the toes and the groin area between the legs.

Ringworm is spread through contact with other infected people, animals or soil. Children often get ringworm from playing with stray cats or dogs, and is also more common in adults who are involved in contact sports, gardening and have a lot of contact with cats and dogs.

Ringworm spread from animals is a more severe but short-lived infection than those spread from other people.

Athlete's foot can be spread by showering after someone who has the infection. It is more common in men than women. Drying toes well protects against it as fungal infections need moist conditions.

Tinea infections are more common in tropical countries.

What are the symptoms?

The infection will appear as a round or oval sore with a red outline. The inside of the sore may look like normal healthy skin, but the outside is red, dry and scaly, and can itch.

It is called ringworm because the sore looks like worm has burrowed beneath the skin in a circular motion.

The infection is usually seen on the trunk, arm, hands, nails, and the groin and upper thighs. It can also appear on the scalp in rare cases.

A tinea infection causing athlete's foot often appears between the toes, causing cracked skin and an itchy lesion. Sometimes it spreads to the soles of the feet and can also grow on the toe nails.

Persisting or severe fungal skin infections may occasionally be a sign of underlying medical problems (e.g. diabetes) and you may wish to discuss tests with your doctor.

What can be done to help?

Keeping the skin very dry and exposure to light are very helpful.

Mild infections are usually treated with an anti-fungal ointment which are available at pharmacies. Persistent infections of the scalp and nails can be treated with oral medication prescribed by a doctor.

Apply the cream in the morning and at night, preferably after a bath or shower. Reapply the ointment after exercise or swimming.

It is important to follow the directions on the label and use it for the required length of time, otherwise the infection can return after the initial attack. Continue the cream for about another 10 days after the area has appeared to clear, to ensure cure. Spread the cream slightly beyond the edge of the area as well.

Some anti-fungal cream should not be used on children under the age of 2.

For athlete's foot, keep the area as dry as possible (blow-dryers are helpful) and regularly use an anti-fungal powder between the toes.

Change your socks daily and wear cotton and wool socks to help air circulate. Go barefoot and wear sandals when possible. Wear sandals or jandals in public showers at the gym or at swimming pools.

Oral medication can be prescribed for severe cases.

Getting help

Tinea infections usually respond to anti-fungal creams available from the pharmacist. See your doctor if the problem does not clear up within a few weeks.

See a doctor if you are unsure whether it is a fungal infection. Other skin problems can look similar but need different treatment (e.g. eczema or some forms of skin cancer).

See also:

Did this article meet your requirements/expectations?