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Tinea

ringworm; tinea; infectious; infection; disease; rash; rashes; ring; worm; fungus; fungal;

Tinea is a fungus which causes infections of the skin and scalp. It causes a rash which is usually called 'ringworm' if it is on the head or body, 'athlete's foot' if it is between the toes or 'jock itch' if it is in the groin.

Some types of tinea can be caught from animals, especially cats and dogs, but many can only be caught from other humans. Ringworm has nothing to do with worms!

Contents

What is tinea?

Tinea is a skin infection caused by several different types of fungus.

  • Tinea can affect most parts of the skin, depending on the type of fungus.
  • The infection is in the outer layers of the skin, and rarely enters the body unless the person has serious damage to his or her immune system.
  • In Australia, most tinea on the head is caused by Microsporum canis, which is caught from cats or dogs. Tinea on other parts of the body may be caused by other types of Microsporum fungi or Trichophyton fungi.
  • Getting the infection does not protect the person from getting an infection with the same fungus again.

What does it look like?

  • ringworm.jpg (6556 bytes)Tinea can affect the body, scalp, nails, skin around and between the toes (athlete's foot), and the genital area ('jock itch').
  • On parts of the body such as arms, legs and face it starts as an itchy, red, scaly patch, which gets larger and becomes a red, scaly ring with a paler healthy centre (this is where the 'ring' part of its name comes from). The 'ring' can be round or irregular.
  • Another type of tinea on the body can just cause pale patches on the skin (tinea versicolor).
  • On the scalp there can be a flaky, itchy, red patch, with hair loss (the hairs in it break off, leaving a bald patch which has black dots, which are the bottom of the hairs).
  • tinea.jpg (6638 bytes)On the feet, it often causes white, moist scaling and blisters between the toes and on the sole and upper surface of the foot (athlete's foot). It is very itchy.
  • On the toes and fingers it can make the nails thick, white, yellow or greyish and pitted. The nail becomes brittle.
  • Tinea can also cause other types of rashes and it can be difficult to be sure that the rash is tinea without special tests.
  • On animals (including cats, dogs, cattle, goats, pigs and horses) the infection often looks like a patch of skin where fur is missing.

How does it spread?

  • It can be passed from one person to another by direct skin to skin contact. 
  • Many young people pick up tinea of the feet from wet change room or shower floors. It is good ideal to always wear something on the feet in these areas (eg thongs).
  • It can also be spread through contact with things such as combs and clothing (eg sneakers/sandshoes) that have been in contact with infected skin.
  • Because some tinea can be caught from animals (including cats and dogs), check whether your pet has a patch of hair loss, a rash or other skin problems and have them seen by a vet, and treated.

How long it is infectious

Tinea does spread from person to person, but how long it stays contagious is not fully clear. It is better not to touch an area of rash that has not yet been treated.

Diagnosis of tinea

  • Some forms of tinea glow under an ultraviolet light (Wood's light), which can be helpful for diagnosis, but for some the only way to be sure of the diagnosis is to take a scraping of the skin to look for the fungus under a microscope.

Treatment of tinea

  • Check with a doctor to find out what treatment is necessary.
    • Some forms of tinea can be treated with 'over-the-counter' creams, ointments or shampoos, or stronger creams that can be prescribed by a doctor. Sometimes oral treatment (tablets) is needed. You can only get this from a doctor.
    • Animals will need tablets or skin treatments from a vet.
    • Treatment is usually needed for a couple of weeks, or longer.
  • Without treatment tinea can last for a very long time.
  • Tinea of the nails is particularly hard to treat, and the person may need to stay on the treatment for many months.
  • If a child has athlete's foot, it is important to keep the feet (especially between the toes) as dry as possible.
    • Have shoes off as much as possible, but wear sandals or thongs so that the fungus is not spread to other people.
    • Dry the feet very carefully after a shower or bath.
    • Change socks every day, and wash shoes and sneakers if they can be washed. If they can't be washed, they should be allowed to dry completely between uses. (Having two pairs of shoes that can be worn on alternate days is ideal, but it may be possible to dry the insides of the shoes with a hairdryer.)

Preventing the spread of tinea

  • It is difficult to prevent tinea infections since the fungi that cause it are very common.
  • Outbreaks of tinea are common in childcare centres and schools.
    • If children or adults have tinea, it is best to keep them home until treatment has been started.
  • People (eg family members) who have had close contact with people with tinea should have their skin, scalp and nails closely looked at to see if they also need treatment.
  • Pets also need to be inspected for tinea and treated if necessary.
  • Clothing, towels etc should be washed in hot water.
  • Don't share sneakers/sandshoes.
  • If using communal showers (eg at school and swimming centres) make sure that feet do not touch the floor by wearing washable footwear, eg thongs.
  • Floors of showers and change rooms that are used by lots of people need to be thoroughly and regularly cleaned to control the spread of athlete's foot.
  • Careful hygiene and handwashing, are important to reduce the spread.
  • In a child care centre, wash bathroom floors and toys daily, and to not allow sharing of personal things such as clothes, combs and towels. (This can help prevent the spread of many infections, not only tinea.)

References and further reading

Department of Health, South Australia
'Fungal infections of the hair, skin, or nails (ringword, tinea, athlete's foot)'

Better Health Channel (Victoria)

MedlinePlus - National Library of Medicine (USA) 

Royal Children's Hospital (Victoria)

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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