Fungal Skin Infections (tinea, ringworm)

Microscopic-sized organisms called fungi or fungus are all around us. They normally live on our skin without causing problems. In some instances they grow out of control and cause fungal infections of the skin, hair, and nails.

Fungal skin infections are very common, especially among children, but they may affect people of all ages. They can appear anywhere on the body and lead to a variety of symptoms depending on the type and location of fungi.

The symptoms of fungal skin infections include:

  • Itchy, red, raised, scaly patches that may blister and ooze. The patches often have sharply-defined edges. They are often redder around the outside with normal skin tone in the center. This may create the appearance of a ring. Your skin may also appear unusually dark or light.
  • If your scalp or beard is infected, you may develop bald patches.
  • If nails are infected, they can become discolored and thick.

How Are Fungal or Fungus Infections Diagnosed?

Your physician will diagnose a fungal infection primarily based on the appearance of the skin.

Another test is a Wood’s lamp that makes some fungi appear fluorescent under its blue light. The skin may also be scraped to obtain cells for examination under a microscope. Sometimes it is necessary to scrap or swab the skin for a “culture” that is sent to a lab for identification.

What Are the Different Types of Fungal or Fungus Infections?

Some fungal infections are given unique names for their location or type of fungi involved:

Ringworm. Fungal or Fungus infections on the body (tinea corporis) or scalp (tinea capitis) are sometimes referred to as “ringworm.” This is because the rash sometimes appears as a ring, or partial ring. This is a confusing and unnecessarily alarming name because the rash is not caused by a worm. Tinea capitis can lead to hair loss.

Ringworm (tinea corporis)

Athlete’s foot (tinea pedis) is a fungal infection of the feet and is very common between the toes. Feet that remain in shoes all day retain warmth and moisture, which promote the growth of fungi.

Athlete's foot infection (tinea pedis)

Onychomycosis (tinea unguium) refers to a fungal infection of the toenail or fingernail.

Toenail  infection (onychomycosis)

Tinea versicolor is a common and harmless fungal infection caused by Pityriasis versicolor. It appears on the back, chest, neck, and upper arms as light-colored patches of discolored skin.

Tinea versicolor

Tinea nigra is a fungal infection caused by specific type of fungi (exophiala phaeoannellomyces) found in the soil of tropical regions. The infection generally occurs in individuals prone to excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis). It appears as slowly expanding brown or black patches on the skin of the palms and/or soles.

Jock itch (tinea cruris) is a fungal infection of the genital area.

How Are Fungal Infections Treated?

Ringworm (tinea corporis), jock itch (tinea cruris), athlete’s foot (tinea pedis), and tinea versicolor can usually be treated effectively with topical antifungal medications.

Tinea capitis often requires the use of an oral antifungal agent, such as griseofulvin, because the fungi can reside deep in the hair follicles.

Similarly, nail infections where the fungi have penetrated the nail bed may require an oral antifungal, though some specially formulated topical antifungals might be tried first.

Tinea nigra generally responds well to topical antifungal agents and peeling agents such as salicylic acid or topical retinoids.

The paper-thin patches of fungal overgrowth found with tinea versicolor can be treated effectively with topical antifungal solutions.

What Should I Expect from Treatment?

Topical medications applied to the skin are usually effective at treating fungal infections within 4 weeks. If your infection is severe or resistant (meaning that it does not respond well to self-care), it will usually respond quickly to antifungal pills.

How Can I Prevent a Fungal Infection?

Fungal infections on the skin are contagious. They can be passed from one person to the next by direct skin-to-skin contact or by contact with contaminated items such as combs, unwashed clothing, and shower or pool surfaces. You can also catch ringworm from pets that carry the fungus. Cats are common carriers.

Fungi thrive in warm, moist areas. Infections are more likely when you have frequent wetness (such as from sweating) and minor injuries to your skin, scalp, or nails.

To prevent fungal infections:

  • Keep your skin and feet clean and dry.
  • Shampoo regularly, especially after haircuts.
  • Do not share clothing, towels, hairbrushes, combs, headgear, or other personal care items. Such items should be thoroughly cleaned and dried after use.
  • Wear sandals or shoes at gyms, lockers, and pools.
  • Avoid touching pets with bald spots. Wash your hands if you pet a stray animal.

Reference: Centers for Disease Control

This information is for general educational uses only. It may not apply to you and your specific medical needs. This information should not be used in place of a visit, call, consultation with or the advice of your physician or health care professional. Communicate promptly with your physician or other health care professional with any health-related questions or concerns.

Be sure to follow specific instructions given to you by your physician or health care professional.