Merck Manual

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Overview of Dermatophytoses


Denise M. Aaron

, MD, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center

Last full review/revision Feb 2020| Content last modified Feb 2020
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Dermatophytoses are fungal infections of keratin in the skin and nails (nail infection is called tinea unguium or onychomycosis). Symptoms and signs vary by site of infection. Diagnosis is by clinical appearance and by examination of skin scrapings on potassium hydroxide wet mount. Treatment varies by site but always involves topical or oral antifungals.

Potentially pathogenic fungi include yeasts (eg, Candida albicans) and dermatophytes. Dermatophytes are molds that require keratin for nutrition and must live on stratum corneum, hair, or nails to survive. Human infections are caused by Epidermophyton, Microsporum, and Trichophyton species. These infections differ from candidiasis in that they are rarely if ever invasive. Transmission is person-to-person, animal-to-person, and, rarely, soil-to-person. The organism may persist indefinitely. Most people do not develop clinical infection; those who do may have impaired T-cell responses from an alteration in local defenses (eg, from trauma with vascular compromise) or from primary (hereditary) or secondary (eg, diabetes, HIV) immunosuppression.

Common dermatophytoses include

Symptoms and Signs

Symptoms and signs of dermatophytoses vary by site (skin, hair, nails). Organism virulence and host susceptibility and hypersensitivity determine severity. Most often, there is little or no inflammation; asymptomatic or mildly itching lesions with a scaling, slightly raised border remit and recur intermittently. Occasionally, inflammation is more severe and manifests as sudden vesicular or bullous disease (usually of the foot) or as an inflamed boggy lesion of the scalp (kerion).


  • Clinical appearance

  • Potassium hydroxide wet mount

Diagnosis of dermatophytoses is based on clinical appearance and site of infection and can be confirmed by skin scrapings and demonstration of hyphae on potassium hydroxide (KOH) wet mount or by culture of plucked hairs. For onychomycosis, the most sensitive test is a periodic acid-Schiff stain of nail clippings. For KOH wet mount, the affected area of the nail plate, not subungual debris, should be pared and tested.

Identification of specific organisms by culture is unnecessary except for scalp infection (where an animal source may be identified and treated) and nail infection (which may be caused by a nondermatophyte). Culture may also be useful when overlying inflammation and bacterial infection are severe and/or accompanied by alopecia.

Differential diagnosis of dermatophytoses includes

  • Folliculitis decalvans (a rare, scarring alopecia in which a patch of alopecia with pustules enlarges)

  • Bacterial pyodermas

  • Entities that cause scarring alopecia, such as discoid lupus erythematosus, lichen planopilaris, and pseudopelade

  • Dissecting cellulitis


  • Topical or oral antifungals

  • Sometimes corticosteroids

Topical antifungals are generally adequate for skin infections (see Table: Options for Treatment of Superficial Fungal Infections*). Over-the-counter (OTC) terbinafine is fungicidal and allows for shorter treatment duration. Econazole or ciclopirox may be better if candidal infection cannot be excluded. Other adequate OTC topical treatments include clotrimazole and miconazole.

Oral antifungals are used for most nail and scalp infections, resistant skin infections, and patients unwilling or unable to adhere to prolonged topical regimens; doses and duration differ by site of infection.

Corticosteroids are sometimes used in addition to antifungal creams to help relieve itching and inflammation. However, combining topical corticosteroids and antifungal creams should be avoided when possible because topical corticosteroids promote fungus growth. OTC topical corticosteroid and antifungal products should not be used as substitutes for obtaining an accurate diagnosis with a KOH wet mount or culture.

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