Ringworm, medically called dermatophytosis, is a common fungal infection that draws its name from the signature ring-like rash it often creates. Over 40 different species of fungi can cause ringworm, which typically develops in warm, damp areas. Many symptoms other than the ring-shaped rash are possible, but they vary depending on what area of the body ringworm affects. Depending on its location, ringworm might be referred to as athlete’s foot, tinea unguium or nail fungus, and even jock itch.
On most areas of the skin, ringworm causes a signature ring-shaped rash. Patches of this rash are typically flat, with scaly, raised borders. At first, the center of the patch may be clear. On lighter skin, they tend to be pink or red; they are often gray or brown on darker skin tones.
Over time, the ring-shaped rashes slowly grow in a symmetrical circular pattern, spreading across the body.
Rashes from ringworm do not always look the same. In some cases, the rashes may look more like bullseyes than singular rings. Alternatively, the blemishes may not be circular at all. Rather than red, some rashes are silver, purple, or yellowish in color. It is also common for the rashes to develop blisters that eventually ooze and cause crusting of the skin.
Regardless of the shape, many rashes from ringworm infections are red due to irritation and inflammation. Depending on the affected location, the rashes may also be scaly, and the skin may begin to crack. This is typical of ringworm infections of the hands and feet. Cracked skin also increases the risk of secondary infections.
As with most types of rashes, the blemishes resulting from ringworm infections are often itchy. The exact nature and severity of the itching are dependent on the state and location of the rash. For example, infections near the groin are often much itchier than those on the trunk of the body.
Once the rashes form, it is common for the hair within the patches to become brittle. Depending on the location, this can cause minor to significant hair loss. This is particularly true of infections of the scalp and face. Additionally, ringworm infections may cause growths called kerions, which trigger significant—and sometimes permanent—hair loss.
The same fungi responsible for ringworm may affect the feet, causing a condition most people recognize as athlete’s foot. Also known as tinea pedis, athlete’s foot does not feature the circular rash of ringworm. Instead, the affected person develops dry, peeling, and itchy skin—especially between the toes. The feet may also develop stinging or burning sensations. Over time, the skin of the foot may thicken as if significant calluses have formed.
If ringworm spreads to the face—causing an infection called tinea faciei—it often features the recognizable circular rashes. However, unlike rashes on other areas of the body, these blemishes tend to be photosensitive. This means that they become redder and more irritated following exposure to sunlight or other forms of UV radiation. The rashes may feel wet or have significant crusting.
Though uncommon in adults, ringworm fungi may infect the scalp. This condition, tinea capitis, mostly affects toddlers and young children. Rather than the circular rash, there are itchy patches with red, yellow, or silver coloring. The rashes are often flaky, so parents may initially mistake them for dandruff.
Tinea cruris, known more widely as jock itch, is an infection resulting from the same fungus responsible for ringworm. As its common name implies, the infection develops along the skin folds around the genitals, thighs, buttocks, and stomach. Rashes from tinea cruris are often raised, scaly, and reddish-brown. They are also extremely itchy.
Occasionally, the ringworm fungus may infect the fingernails and toenails, though the latter is more common. This infection is sometimes known as tinea unguium and onychomycosis and is extremely difficult to treat. It causes the nails to become discolored, thick, and brittle. If the infection is particularly severe, the nails may separate from the nailbed and fall off.
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