If you've got a circular rash somewhere on your skin, it's natural to worry about ringworm. But sometimes, that suspicious spot may be due to eczema instead. Although these two conditions can have similar symptoms, they are actually quite different.
That's because eczema and ringworm have different causes, or triggers, meaning that the treatments can vary. To get the right care for any skin condition, it's important to know the underlying problem.
So, how do you tell the difference between ringworm vs eczema?
Ringworm: What It Is—and What It Isn't
Differences aside, there is at least one thing that both eczema and ringworm have in common: neither is caused by a worm. Despite its name, ringworm occurs due to a fungal infection, which means that there are no actual worms or anything of the sort crawling around under the skin.
The experts at the American Academy of Dermatologists suggest that the name "ringworm" comes, instead, from its appearance. With a raised red border that snakes around the rash like a worm, the fungi infection often can resemble a worm—even if there isn't really one involved.
Ringworm tends to happen in warmer climates when people are most prone to sweating, and athletes who perspire often face an especially high risk. Ringworm can affect anywhere on the body, especially the feet and groin. When those two areas get ringworm, it's known as "athlete's foot" and "jock itch" and can cause dry or peeling skin rather than a defined worm-like border. Wherever you get ringworm, it usually makes you itchy—and without treatment, it can gradually get worse.
Ringworm can spread from person to person after physical contact or by sharing objects like a hairbrush or towel. People can also get ringworm after touching infected animals.
How Is Ringworm Different from Eczema?
Whereas ringworm is caused by a fungal infection, eczema tends to happen when an outside irritant like a bug bite or chemical exposure bothers the skin or causes an allergic reaction. Generally, eczema can look like a dry or scaly rash without the raised worm-like border of ringworm. Babies tend to develop eczema on their face, kids often get it in crevices like the knees or elbows, and adults commonly see it on their head, eyelids, hands, or neck.
Unlike ringworm, eczema tends to come and go with various flareups. Dermatologists typically recommend that people with eczema avoid their unique triggers, like certain detergents or pollen.
Still, ringworm and eczema can act similarly. Both can cause red patches of skin, as well as itchiness, dryness, and peeling in certain areas like the hands or feet. That is why it's best to check with a board-certified Dermatologist for a physical exam and recommended testing.
Treating Ringworm vs Eczema
Whether you've got ringworm or eczema, know this: outcomes look good with the right treatment—but that requires a correct diagnosis from a healthcare provider.
Some Dermatologists may diagnose eczema or ringworm by looking at it, whereas others may want to run a test where they take a small sample of your skin for microscopic analysis. Your doctor may also ask about your family history, which may raise the risk for certain types of eczema.
If ringworm is confirmed, your doctor will likely recommend antifungal medications, which get rid of the fungus that causes the infection. These medications can vary from creams, powders, and sprays to oral medicines, either bought with a prescription or purchased over-the-counter. With time, these treatments can completely rid the body of the ringworm infection.
If you have eczema, the goal of treatments is different. Instead of getting rid of eczema, Dermatologists can help you control it. In addition to managing known triggers that cause flareups, eczema care plans may also include body moisturizers and topical ointments.
When Is It Time to See a Doctor?
Your best bet is to schedule an appointment with a Dermatologist if you notice any areas of concern on your skin. They can do a full exam to diagnose or rule out certain conditions, and they can also discuss recommended care plans.
After all, it's nice when someone has your back—and other parts of your skin, too!