Pityriasis versicolor (tinea versicolor)

Many people with pityriasis versicolor have no idea that the reason for their blotchy skin is a fungus. If this proliferates, the disease develops. The skin rash is usually harmless, is not infectious and can be treated.

At a glance

  • Tinea versicolor is a skin disease in which dark or light patches form on the skin.
  • It is caused by a yeast fungus that occurs on the skin of nearly all people.
  • Tinea versicolor is normally harmless and not infectious.
  • It is not clear why the fungi only multiply on some people and cause patches on the skin.

Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.

Pityriasis versicolor: woman standing with her back to us in a crowd clutching the back of her neck with her left hand.

What is pityriasis versicolor?

With pityriasis versicolor, light or dark patches form on the skin. It is caused by a yeast fungus that occurs on the skin of nearly all people. The skin disease is not infectious and is normally harmless. Pityriasis versicolor is also called tinea versicolor.

As a general rule, pityriasis versicolor can be treated well externally with remedies like special creams or shampoos.

What are the symptoms of pityriasis versicolor?

Anyone who has pityriasis versicolor initially develops small round or oval patches on the skin. Over time, these grow together into larger patches with irregular shapes.

The patches develop in particular on the chest, neck, back and arms. The face can also be affected, especially in children.

The patches can have different colors. Sometimes they are yellowish or brownish, but they can also be pink or reddish. They are often darker or lighter than healthy skin.

In tanned skin, the patches are noticeable because they barely go brown in sunlight. Skin areas affected by pityriasis versicolor can also be somewhat flaky. Itching is rare and only mild if it does occur.

What causes pityriasis versicolor?

Pityriasis versicolor is caused by yeast fungi that are on nearly everyone’s skin. It is not clear why these fungi only multiply on some people and cause visible patches.

Important: Pityriasis versicolor is not caused by poor hygiene. It is also not infectious.

Which risk factors favor pityriasis versicolor?

Among other things, pityriasis versicolor can be favored by these factors:

  • warm and moist climate
  • increased production of sweat – for instance in people who sweat easily or exercise a lot
  • oils or cosmetics that can seal the skin pores
The factors that favor pityriasis versicolor are a warm and moist climate, increased sweat production, comedogenic oils or cosmetics.

Furthermore, a hereditary predisposition probably plays a role.

With a weakened immune system, the general risk for infections and thus also pityriasis versicolor increases. For example, the immune system can be weakened by certain kinds of cancer or drugs that suppress the immune defense such as those given after an organ transplant.

How common is pityriasis versicolor?

Pityriasis versicolor is a common skin disease. It is estimated to occur in about 1% of the population in countries with a moderate climate. In some tropical countries, up to 40% are affected.

The fungal skin infection pityriasis versicolor is found in 1% of people in countries with a temperate climate and up to 40% of people in some tropical countries.

Men and women are equally affected. Pityriasis versicolor usually appears for the first time in adolescence.

How is pityriasis versicolor diagnosed?

A doctor can often already recognize pityriasis versicolor by the typical light or dark patches on the upper body or arms.

To rule out other skin diseases, some flakes of skin can be taken with the aid of clear sticky tape and observed under a microscope. In general, pityriasis versicolor can thus be easily detected.

How is pityriasis versicolor treated?

Cool or dry weather can make pityriasis versicolor recede. But it does not normally abate on its own. To make it go away entirely, it is treated with creams, lotions and head and body shampoos in particular. These remedies contain fungistatic or fungicidal substances.

Creams and lotions are applied to the affected skin areas. The hair and scalp are moreover washed with a special shampoo to prevent fungi spreading from them.

Many remedies take just a few minutes to have an effect, while others need several hours. That is why creams and lotions are often applied at night and washed off in a shower the next morning.

After a successful treatment, it may take several weeks or even months for the patches on the skin to disappear. Only in rare cases is pityriasis versicolor treated with tablets.

You can read more detailed information, such as how pityriasis versicolor is treated, at gesundheitsinformation.de.

In cooperation with the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (Institut für Qualität und Wirtschaftlichkeit im Gesundheitswesen) (IQWiG). As at:

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