- touching a person who is infected.
- touching an infected surface.
- sharing a towel or clothing with someone who is infected.
- sharing hats, combs or brushes with someone who has scalp ringworm.
- walking around barefoot in public environments where the floors are damp.
- touching a hairless patch on an infected dog, cat or farm animal.
- visiting a nail salon that does not sterilize its instruments.
- in rare cases you can catch ringworm from soil that contains the fungus.
What is ringworm? Ringworm is the result of infection by a common dermatophyte fungus. (It is not caused by a parasitic worm, as the name suggests).
It is the catch-all term for a number of fungus infections that can take hold on the skin, hair and nails. In the medical community they are identified as “tinea” infections, but they also have more colloquial names. For example ringworm of the foot (tinea pedis) is also known as Athlete’s foot, toe fungus and foot fungus. And ringworm of the groin and upper thigh area (tinea cruris) is commonly called Jock itch, scrotum itch or crotch rot.
Is Ringworm Contagious?
Unfortunately yes, ringworm is contagious and can easily spread by direct contact (skin to skin) or indirect contact (touching an infected surface). The infection can be passed from person to person, animal to person and even soil to person on rare occasions. It is caused by a ubiquitous dermatophyte fungus that will grow opportunistically wherever and whenever conditions allow.
Ringworm infections are more common in hot climates and can affect any part of the body, particularly areas that remain sweaty, dark or airless for long periods of time. That’s why the skin between the toes, skin folds, the groin area and underneath fingernails and toenails are all parts of the body that are highly susceptible to fungal infections.
Transmission often occurs in warm and moist environments. So public showers, changing rooms, gym equipment and tanning beds are places where you can easily come into contact with infectious fungal spores. The fungus can also contaminate hairbrushes, clothes and towels. Athletes and people who participate in activities that require body-to-body contact are more susceptible to ringworm.
Your likelihood of infection is also determined by the pH and local immune resistance of the part of the body that comes into contact with the ringworm fungus. A scratch or abrasion can weaken this protective barrier as can using highly perfumed soaps that contain strong chemicals.
Note also that dogs, pets and farm animals can develop ringworm – it manifests as a patch of skin where the fur is missing – and it is possible to pick up an infection through contact.
Studies estimate that 20% of people will experience ringworm at some point during their lives.
The classic ringworm rash is itchy, red and scaly with a well demarcated border. It can spread to be several inches across. The very center of the rash is often clear, giving it a ring like appearance. As shown in the image below, ringworm can occur on different parts of the body including the face, trunk and feet.
Ringworm prevention tips
- Don’t share towels, clothing or hairbrushes with infected people.
- If you have Athletes foot, always put your socks on before your underwear. This is to avoid picking up fungal spores on your underwear as you pass these over your feet and carrying them to your groin area,
- Athletes foot or toe fungus is one of the most common forms of ringworm. It makes sense to apply a topical antifungal (see sidebar) as soon as possible before the fungus is able to progress to other parts of the body where it is harder to treat. See more on toe fungus treatment. If the fungus spreads to the nails for example it can take many months to clear up – see more on toenail fungus treatment.
- Never walk around barefoot in damp pubic areas. That includes the bathroom floor as well as gym showers or changing room. Wear protective footwear (e.g. rubber thongs).
- Shake some antifungal powder onto affected or at-risk areas. While you are at it, shake some into the shoes you wear most often.
- Wipe bath surfaces with a fungicide such as borax or bleach. Wash underwear and sheet and towels on a warm cycle.
- If you are susceptible to ringworm infections use an antifungal soap when showering
- Pets can also suffer from the disease so watch out for bald patches of fur and avoid contact if you notice these.
- Wash underwear and socks on the hot cycle.
- Avoid touching pets with bald spots.
- Wash quickly after contact sports using an antifungal soap (remembering to dry thoroughly afterward).
- Wear loose fitting shoes and clothes, changing out of these as soon as they become sweaty.
- Change your socks and shoes on a regular basis and shake some antifungal powder into the shoes you use most often.
How do you get rid of ringworm?
- First continue the full course of treatment even if you can no longer see signs of infection. The degree of infectiousness recedes quite quickly as you treat.
- Second apply the treatment to a few centimeters of healthy skin around the ringworm rash.
Most ringworm infections are not serious and easily treatable. Read more on ringworm cures.
Athlete’s foot (or toe fungus) is a form of ringworm where the skin of the feet is infected. See more on toe fungus treatment. It is common for Athlete’s foot to spread to the toenails to cause a condition known as Onychomycosis. Toenail fungus treatment is more difficult, so catch it before it is able to spread.