Ringworm: Avoiding Athlete's Foot and Other Infections

Posted on December 28 2018

When we think about winter sports, images of skiing, snowboarding, and even basketball might appear in your mind. But one of the most popular high school sports in the winter is wrestling, and such a physical, tactile sport comes with a number of health risks. The most surprising of these is the infection known as ringworm. This infection is prevalent not only among wrestling teams, but in other sports as well as fitness centers. Wherever exercise exists, ringworm is a possibility of proper hygiene isn't carefully maintained.

Ringworm Antifungal Cream

Ringworm: Not Actually a Worm

That title may have spoiled the ending for you, but we really wanted to clear this up immediately, because dermatophytosis, or tinea corporis, has a nickname that's both disgusting and misleading. Ringworm is a fungal infection usually on the surface of your skin and sometimes your nails. It gets the name from the red, circular shape its rash often takes -- at least the "ring" part. (Tinea is actually Latin for "worm," and it's used to classify a number of different fungal infections. We discuss them below. It's thought that the use of the word represents the irregular outline of the ring, similar to a worm or snake.)

So what causes ringworm and the rest of the tinea infections? Broadly, most are caused by dermatophytes, a group of about 40 fungi species. They gain nutrients from keratin, a protein found in the outer layer of our skin as well as our hair and nails, and also the horns, hooves, and claws of animals. The rash that accompanies ringworm is inflammation caused by our bodies reacting to the metabolic processes of these fungi.

Ringworm Symptoms

To an extent, the symptoms of ringworm are determined by the part of your body affected, but they tend to show these signs:

  • Red, scaly, raised patches of skin.
  • Itchiness and irritation.
  • Cracking skin that may ooze or blister.
  • Rashes that may form a ring-like shape with an uneven outline.

Ringworm Athlete's Foot

Other Types of Ringworm

Most types of ringworm are similar in symptom and appearance, and are typically distinguished by the area they affect. The most common ones that you may be familiar with are known as athlete's foot and jock itch.

Athlete's Foot: Tinea pedis, which most often causes redness, itchiness, and cracking in the skin between the toes. It can spread to the sole and heels, and may cause blistering in severe cases.

Jock Itch: Tinea cruris, an infection on the groin that manifests as red or brown scaly skin, sometimes as ring-like spots. Can involve itchiness, a burning feeling, cracking, and peeling. More common in men, it typically first appears in the groin folds on both sides. Many cases start as athlete's foot and spread through clothing -- the tight, restrictive nature of some athletic clothing and equipment, particularly jock straps, makes for an ideal environment for fungus to thrive.

Other Forms: Ringworm may develop on the scalp or the facial skin underneath a beard. In this case, hair may fall out and bald spots or patches may develop and grow. Your nails may also be infected, at which point they may crack, thicken, or become discolored.

Ringworm Wrestling

Causes of Ringworm: Can It Be Avoided?

Ringworm is difficult to prevent, largely because it's very contagious and has a long incubation period. Visual symptoms may not show for a few days after transmission, and in some cases as long as two weeks. It can easily be spread from skin-to-skin contact, and can be transferred from animals to humans.

Dermatophytes and other fungi that cause infections thrive in moist, hot environments. Although symptoms similar to ringworm have been described and catalogued since antiquity, incidence rates seem to have grown since the 1900s. This can largely be attributed to the rise in physical education classes and exercise. More people are in contact with one another in conditions where fungi thrive.

With that in mind, here are some tips to help reduce the spread of ringworm:

  • Keep clean: Shower and change your underwear daily. Keep your skin clean and dry.
  • Avoid being barefoot in public areas: Wear footwear in locker rooms and public showers, and sandals at the beach.
  • Practice good foot hygiene: Clip your toenails regularly. Change your socks daily. In warmer weather, wear shoes that allow air to circulate.
  • Practice good hand hygiene: Clip your fingernails regularly. Wash your hands when appropriate, and especially after petting or playing with animals.
  • Don't share: Avoid sharing sports equipment, hairbrushes, combs, or unwashed towels, bedding, or clothing.
  • At the Gym: Clean exercise mats and gym clothes regularly and allow them to dry properly. Wipe down exercise machines before and after use.
  • For Athletes: Shower immediately after practice and sports events. Keep uniforms and equipment clean.
  • If Your Pet Has It: Bring it to the vet. Wash up after coming into contact with your pet, and wear gloves or long sleeves when touching it. Clean and disinfect the places it spends time in.

Ringworm doesn't typically go beneath the upper layer of skin, but may in some cases, especially for people with compromised immune systems. If you or a loved one has a weakened immune system, be scrupulous about cleaning.

Ringworm Antifungal Cream

Treating Ringworm

Finding the right medicine to treat ringworm can be dependent on its severity and location. In almost all cases you'll be using a topical antifungal medicine, which may be available over-the-counter, or in more serious cases cases, as a prescription. You'll apply a topical agent twice a day to the affected area until the symptoms clear up, which usually takes 1-2 weeks, and then for an additional 7 days afterward to prevent recurrence.

Topical antifungal agents include medications like miconazole, terbinafine, clotrimazole, and ciclopirox that are often available as creams or gels. Many of these not only kill the fungal infection, but also provide moisture barriers like regular skin creams in order to help prevent reinfection. Stagnant sweat allows fungi to thrive.

Some antifungal agents are specialized, particularly for conditions like athlete's foot and jock itch. Some are designed to combat nail fungus. Many of these are available as sprays or powders, which also may have moisture-absorbing features -- this can be particularly helpful underneath tighter clothing like underwear and socks.

In more severe cases or with ringworm on the scalp, an oral medication may be prescribed to help kill the fungal infection. Antifungal shampoo may also be used in the event of a scalp infection.

Maintaining proper hygienic practices is important even if you already have ringworm, as disinfecting your home and using antifungal soap on clothes, towels, and linens will help prevent the infection from coming back. Ringworm spreads so readily that people living with or in regular contact with a patient or infected pet may be treated for it as a precaution.

PLEASE CONSULT WITH YOUR DOCTOR OR ANOTHER QUALIFIED HEALTH CARE PROFESSIONAL BEFORE TAKING ANY MEDICATION, SUPPLEMENTS, OR BEGINNING ANY HEALTH-RELATED REGIMENT.