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Health Issues

Tinea Infections (Ringworm, Athlete's Foot, Jock Itch)

Doctors use the word tinea to describe a group of contagious skin infections caused by a few different types of fungi. They can affect many areas of the skin and depending on their location and fungal type, the infection has different names.

  • Tinea capitis is a skin infection or ringworm of the scalp caused by a fungus called dermatophytes (capitis comes from the Latin word for head). It mostly affects children.
  • Tinea corporis is ringworm of the body (corporis means body in Latin). In wrestlers this is often called tinea gladiatorum.
  • Tinea pedis or athlete’s foot is an infection that occurs on the feet, particularly between the toes (pedis is the Latin word for foot).
  • Tinea cruris or jock itch tends to create a rash in the moist, warm areas of the groin (cruris means leg in Latin). It most often occurs in boys when they wear athletic gear.
  • Tinea versicolor or pityriasis versicolor is a common skin infection caused by a slow-growing fungus (Pityrosporum orbiculare) that is a type of yeast. It is a mild infection that can occur on many parts of the body.

Although the name ringworm is attached to some of these conditions, worms are not involved in any of them. The infections are caused by fungi.

Signs and Symptoms

In many cases of ringworm and other tinea infections, circular, ring-shaped sores are formed, which is why the term ringworm is used. On the body, these lesions or patches may be slightly red and often have a scaly border. They may grow to about 1 inch in diameter. While some children have just one patch, others may have several of them. They tend to be itchy and uncomfortable.

  • In ringworm of the scalp, itching may develop on the head, along with round and raised lesions. Hair loss can occur in patches. Some cases of scalp ringworm do not produce obvious rings and can be confused with dandruff or cradle cap. In a few cases, the child will have a reaction to the fungus and develop a large boggy area called a kerion. This looks like a pus-filled sore (abscess), but it is really an allergic reaction to the fungus. The infected area will heal once the fungus is treated. Steroids are often given to speed healing. Sometimes, bacteria can infect the area later. If this occurs, your pediatrician may advise the use of antibacterials.
  • When fungi cause athlete’s foot, the skin can become itchy and red with cracking and flaking between the toes. This is most common in adolescents.

Tinea infections are spread by skin-to-skin contact, most often when a child touches another person who is already infected. The fungi thrive in warm, damp environments and at times can be spread in moist surfaces, such as the floors of locker rooms or public showers. When a child sweats during physical activity, the moisture on the skin can increase the chances of a fungal infection.

The incubation period for these infections is not known.

When To Call Your Pediatrician

Contact your pediatrician if your child has symptoms of a tinea infection.

How Is The Diagnosis Made?

Most tinea infections can be diagnosed by your pediatrician on visual examination of the affected area. The diagnosis can be confirmed by taking skin scrapings at the site of the infection—for example, by gently scraping a damp area of the scalp with a blunt scalpel or toothbrush—and testing the collected cells in the laboratory. Also, when one type of fungal infection is looked at in a dark room using a special blue light called a Wood’s lamp, it will have a fluorescent appearance. Not all of the fungi are fluorescent, so this test can’t be used to rule out the possibility of a fungal skin or scalp infection.


Antifungal medications applied directly on the head are ineffective for treating ringworm of the scalp. Instead, your pediatrician may recommend giving your child antifungal medications by mouth, most often a medicine called griseofulvin, that should be taken for an average of 4 to 6 weeks. A variety of other medicines can be used. Washing your child’s hair with selenium sulfide shampoo can decrease shedding that could spread the infection to others.

Over-the-counter antifungal or drying powders and creams are effective for other types of tinea infections, including athlete’s foot and tinea corporis. Your pediatrician may prescribe a cream for treating the rash associated with jock itch. Topical medications including clotrimazole and ketoconazole are used to treat ringworm of the body as well as tinea versicolor.

What Is The Prognosis?

Ringworm infections usually respond well to treatment within a few weeks, although they can sometimes come back.


Good hygiene is important for preventing many tinea infections. For example, to avoid ringworm of the scalp, make sure your child shampoos often, and encourage him to avoid sharing hairbrushes, combs, hats, hair ribbons, and hair clips with other children. He should keep his skin and feet clean and dry, especially between the toes. Have your child wear sandals in locker rooms or at public showers or swimming pools. Give your youngster clean socks and underwear every day.

Last Updated
Immunizations & Infectious Diseases: An Informed Parent's Guide (Copyright © 2006 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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