What You Need to Know About Ringworm

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The name may conjure up images of nasty worms crawling on your skin, but ringworm involves absolutely no worms or anything else creepy and crawly. It's a relatively minor skin infection caused by a fungus, and it usually clears up quickly with proper treatment.

What Is Ringworm?

Ringworm is a fungal infection that causes a ring-shaped rash on the skin. The rash is usually red with unaffected skin in the middle, which creates the ring shape. The red border may be scaly, bumpy or have blisters. You can easily see the border because of its sharp edges. The rings to range from dime size to several inches across. Some people have bumpy red patches without the ring shape, so don't rule out the infection just because the rash isn't a ring with clear skin in the middle.

Ringworm often shows up on the face, trunk and limbs, but it can appear in other places. Ringworm of the scalp appears on the head, and may have a flaky pimple or dandruff appearance instead of the classic ring shape. Jock itch is a form of ringworm in the groin area, and athlete's foot is ringworm that happens on the feet.

How Do You Get Ringworm?

Ringworm is very contagious, so both kids and adults can pick it up easily from a number of sources. Person-to-person contact is a common way of getting the infection, but the fungus sticks around on various surfaces like floors, hats and brushes, so you can catch it even if you don't touch the infected person directly. You can even get ringworm from a pet.

Anyone can get ringworm, but certain people have a higher risk. Kids tend to get ringworm more before they hit puberty. Boys seem to get the fungal infection more than girls. You're also at a higher risk if you have eczema or similar skin problems that affect the outer skin and decrease its protective qualities.

How Long Does It Last?

You may not realize immediately that you're infected with ringworm. The incubation period usually lasts a few days before you start seeing the telltale red rash. Ringworm of the scalp can take up to two weeks after infection to show symptoms.

Left untreated, ringworm can last months. With treatment, the skin condition usually starts clearing up within days, but it can take a week or two. Treatment generally lasts after the rash disappears for a total of two to four weeks of medication, depending on the severity. Continue treatment for at least one week after the rash goes away. The extended treatment time ensures the fungus is actually gone.

What Is the Treatment?

The typical treatment for ringworm is a topical antifungal cream, such as miconazole or clotrimazole, applied to the affected area. If you have ringworm of the scalp, a special shampoo combined with oral antifungal medicine treats the condition. If the ringworm infection is severe, your doctor may recommend a prescription cream or an oral antifungal medication.

How Can You Prevent Ringworm?

To prevent ringworm, you need to avoid contact with anything contaminated with the fungus. That's easier said than done, especially when you have kids who constantly touch every surface possible. Washing hands often helps reduce the risk. Other ways to prevent ringworm include:

  • Wearing shoes, especially in locker rooms and around public pools
  • Using your own personal items like towels, brushes and clothes
  • Teaching your kids not to share personal items
  • Wearing lightweight, cool, breathable clothes to avoid creating an ideal warm, humid place for the fungus to grow
  • Keeping skin dry
  • Changing socks and underwear frequently
  • Washing hands after playing with pets
  • Keeping sports gear clean and dry
  • Vacuuming frequently if your pet has ringworm.

When to Go to Your Doctor

Many antifungal creams that work on ringworm are available in over-the-counter forms, so you don't need to see your doctor to start treatment. If the ringworm infection shows no improvement after two weeks of over-the-counter treatment, schedule an appointment with your doctor. If you're not sure if it's really ringworm, it's a good idea to schedule an appointment for a diagnosis and get recommendations for treatment.

Ringworm of the scalp is usually difficult to treat and is a common cause of hair loss. Schedule an appointment with your doctor if you suspect you or your child has ringworm of the scalp, so you can start treatment right away. If you think your pet is the source of the ringworm infection, schedule an appointment with your vet.