Ringworm is a fungal infection of the skin. So is athlete’s foot. So is jock itch. These ailments are all essentially the same thing in different places — and there are others, too. So let’s talk about all the different places you can get this type of infection, and how to recognise and treat them.
Before we start, just some basic facts: These fungal infections are transmitted from person to person, or sometimes you can pick them up from the environment, such as from soil. Prime places to contract these infections include locker rooms, dorms, and anywhere people might share personal care items like towels and razors.
These infections can also spread from one place on your body to another. So if you have one, keep an eye out for the others, and make sure to treat them all so you don’t keep re-infecting yourself.
This one is a fungal infection of the skin of the feet, typically between the toes. It’s most famously contracted in locker room showers by athletes who make the mistake of showering without flip-flops — but the truth is a little more complicated. Fungi grow best in warm, wet environments, such as between your toes when you haven’t fully dried off your feet. Keep your toes clean and dry, and the fungus will be a lot more likely to dry out and die before it can get a chance to cause trouble.
Athlete’s foot looks like peeling, scaly skin on the feet, usually between the toes. The sensation is usually described as stinging, burning, or itching. As with all the types of ringworm, get a diagnosis from a medical professional if you aren’t sure what you have. That said, ordinary dry skin should feel better pretty quickly if you apply a moisturizer; athlete’s foot tends to require treatment with an antifungal cream containing clotrimazole or terbinafine.
Jock itch is basically athlete’s foot of the groin. It can occur in or around the genitals, inner thighs, and, sorry, your butt crack.
As with athlete’s foot, you need two things to kick off a case: the fungus, which you can pick up from other people or objects (such as towels), and a warm, moist environment for the fungus to grow. If you’re sitting around in tight-fitting, sweaty clothes, you’re creating the perfect environment for it to fester.
The rash itself usually looks like a reddened, painful, or itchy area in a fold of skin. It may have a raised border, and it may be ring-shaped or appear as several ring-shaped patches.
Like athlete’s foot, this is usually treatable with an over-the-counter antifungal cream.
Regular old ringworm
Ringworm isn’t just for toes and crotches; it can occur anywhere on the body. As you’ll be able to guess by now, it’s most common in areas that are warm, moist, and covered by tight-fitting clothing. But it can also occur on any area of skin.
Ringworm gets its name from the way it tends to occur in circular patches with a raised, reddish border. The area inside the border can be scaly and often itchy, and it may get larger over time if it’s untreated. It’s not a worm, OK? It’s still a fungal infection like the other variations we discussed. Those antifungal creams will work here, too — and as with the others, seek medical help to tell the difference between ringworm and other rashes.
Ringworm of the scalp
Now we’re getting into the more serious stuff. Ringworm of the scalp isn’t usually curable with an over-the-counter lotion. It’s more common in children than adults, and it’s contagious enough that you can catch it from head-to-head contact (like if two children are huddling together to read a book).
This condition, also called tinea capitis, appears as a scaly or bumpy rash on the scalp, and the hair inside the patch may fall out. Like other types of ringworm, the rash can become larger over time. If you treat the ringworm early, the hair will usually grow back after treatment. A long-term infection may cause permanent damage to the hair follicles.
Treatment for scalp ringworm tends to be two-pronged. First, you’ll probably be prescribed an antifungal medication to take by mouth for one to three months. That’s because the fungus can live inside hair follicles, where topical treatments can’t reach it. These medications can have side effects, including affecting your liver function, so you may need to get bloodwork to be sure that your body is handling the medication.
You’ll also probably be advised to use an antifungal shampoo for good measure. This helps to reduce the chances of spreading the fungus. If you live with other people, everybody in the household should use the shampoo.
Ringworm of the beard
This is similar to ringworm of the scalp, and can be spread by contaminated razors and trimmers. Treatment is similar to scalp ringworm, and you may be advised to shave your beard to make it easier to apply topical treatments.
Fungal infections of the toenails (or fingernails) are another hard-to-treat infection that may require long-term treatment with oral medications.
In these cases, the nail tends to be thickened and yellow. The fungus doesn’t tend to go away on its own, and can spread to other nails or other areas of skin. As with scalp and beard infections, this often needs to be treated with oral medications and their side effects monitored.
If you think you may have a fungal infection, especially one in your hair or nails, see a medical professional to get a proper diagnosis and to monitor your treatment.