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Tinea Versicolor

Condition Basics

What is tinea versicolor?

Tinea versicolor (say "TIH-nee-uh VER-sih-kuh-ler") is a fungal infection that causes many small, flat spots on the skin. The spots may form patches, usually on parts of the upper body like the chest and neck. In children, this often involves the face. The spots can be lighter or darker than the skin around them.

What causes it?

Tinea versicolor is caused by a fungus. This fungus lives all around us, including on the skin. Normally it doesn't cause a problem. But sometimes it can lead to spots on the skin. This happens more often in hot and humid weather.

Some people, especially teens and young adults, are more likely to get this rash. It does not spread from person to person.

Having an impaired immune system may increase your chance of getting this rash.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of tinea versicolor include small, flat, round or oval spots that frequently form patches. The patches often occur on the chest, upper arms, or neck. Less often, they appear on the upper thighs or face.

The spots can be lighter or darker than the skin around them. They are flat and may be white, pink, red, tan, brown, purple, or grey-black, depending on your skin colour. The patches often have fine scales and may itch.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor often can tell if you have tinea versicolor by looking at the spots.

The doctor may look at a sample (scraping) of the infected skin under a microscope. The test used most often for this is the KOH test. Or the doctor may use a special light called a Wood's lamp to look closely at your spots. Both of these tests can show whether the problem is caused by a fungus.

How is tinea versicolor treated?

Treatment can prevent the rash from spreading and treat the infection. Over time, your skin will return to its usual colour. But not everyone chooses to get treatment. You only need to treat the infection if it bothers you or causes problems.

Products that you put on your skin (topical treatments) are the most common treatment for tinea versicolor.

  • These may include antifungal shampoos, creams, and foams. Shampoos can be used on the body as well as the head and may be easier to use than creams or foams.
  • Shampoos used to treat tinea versicolor usually contain ketoconazole or pyrithione zinc. They are available without a prescription (for example, Nizoral, Head and Shoulders).
  • You may need to use the product once or twice each day for 1 to 2 weeks or longer.

If the infection is severe, returns often, or does not get better with skin care, your doctor may prescribe antifungal pills. These pills have side effects and can affect your heart and liver, so you may need blood tests while you're taking them. People with liver problems, heart problems, or other health problems may not be able to take the pills.

Treatment kills the fungi quickly. But it can take months for the spots to disappear and for your skin colour to return to normal. Also, the infection tends to come back after treatment. It may come and go over the years. In general, it tends to get better as you get older.

How can you prevent it?

If you have frequent problems with tinea versicolor, there are a couple of things you can do so that it is less likely to come back.

  • Use antifungal skin creams, shampoos, or solutions at least once a month. Ask your doctor if you should use them more often.
  • Talk to your doctor about taking antifungal pills once a month. Most people don't need to do this, but it can help in some cases.


Current as of: March 22, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine