Ringworm – what is it?
Ringworm is the commonly used name for the medical condition of Tinea. It is a skin infection cause not by a worm, as its name suggests, but by fungus. It is a fairly common infection that causes a rash. It appears as red patches on the skin that are crusty and scaly. It is also called Dermatophytosis as it is caused by dermatophytes mostly belonging to the Trichophyton and Microsporum group of fungus.
If the ringworm infection is on the scalp, it is characterized by loss of hair in the infected area, itching and blisters on the scalp. The infection can appear at any age and any place, but it is more common in children and people who live in warm, humid climates, such as the tropical and sub-tropical areas of the world.
Symptoms of Ringworm
The ringworm infection starts as a red patch of skin, somewhat rounded and inflamed. The outside edge of the infected area is more inflamed than the inside which is generally white and scaly giving an impression of a ring. This is where it derives its name.
As the infection spreads, the ring expands and gets larger. The infection may be contained to only one are of the body or may appear in several different parts of the body, depending upon the severity of the infection and how you caught it.
The rash may not be very itchy in many cases, but in others it can be highly inflamed and itchy. Most of the symptoms depend upon the type of fungus that has caused the infection. Many a times, the ringworm and other skin conditions such as psoriasis may be confused for each other, as they look very similar.
When the ringworm infection occurs in the nails, it does not form the ring pattern. Rather, it makes the nail yellow, thick and brittle. It is not essential that everyone infected with ringworm will have the ring formation. Sometimes it may not form a ring but could appear like a flaky blister. Ringworm can infect all humans, man, woman or child.
Causes of Ringworm
As explained above, ringworm is caused by fungus. There are many different types of fungus that can cause ringworm or tinea. The fungi that cause the infection thrive on the keratin found in the outer layer of the nails, skin and hair. The fungus favours warm and humid conditions and when it finds these conditions on the skin, it starts to feed off it and grow. It can also live in the hair shaft and the nails.
Once it has found an ideal place to establish itself, it grows and spreads outward causing the characteristic ring formations. The centre of the ring clears up and a new ring of infection starts to grow on the edge of the old infection, thus spreading out in ever growing rings. Ringworm can occur in animals as well as humans.
Since the symptoms for ringworm can be similar to other skin rashes and psoriasis, it is imperative that a proper diagnosis is made for the correct treatment to be provided. Doctors make the diagnosis by taking skin scraping samples and running culture tests to determine the cause. Once the cause has been diagnosed, then proper treatment can commence.
Is Ringworm Contagious?
Ringworm is contagious and spreads through contact with an infected person, pet or object. If you are wondering how contagious it is, then it is extremely contagious. Ringworm is so contagious that there needn’t be a direct contact for the infection to spread. It is not easy to contain as it can survive for a long time in public areas like locker rooms, swimming pools, brushes, combs, hats, etc.
The infection is most common in children where it spreads when children play contact sport, swim in the pool, or share items of clothing like hats and socks, towels, and sports equipment.
Ringworm can pass on to humans via human to human contact as well as human and animal contact. Pets like dogs and cats are prone to ringworm that can spread to humans while handling the pets.
Here are the ways in which you can get ringworm:
- Human to human contact, when you touch a person who has ringworm infection.
- By touching or using articles of clothing and other items that have been used or touched by an infected person.
- Through human to animal contact. Animals such as cat, dog, guinea pigs, horses, cows and other cattle can pass on the infection to humans, especially children.
- It happens rarely but, you can also get the infection through working in the soil or contact with it. If the fungi is present in the soil then it can pass on to humans through it.
How Long is Ringworm Contagious for?
If you are wondering how long ringworm is contagious for, then the answer is that it is only contagious as long as you don’t treat it. Once treatment starts, it stops spreading within a period of 24 – 48 hours. If it is a mild infection it is easy to contain and treat. Children who are suffering from ringworm infection do not have to miss school as ringworm of the skin is not very contagious and needs a skin to skin contact to spread. It does not take long after treatment starts for the infection to stop being contagious. It just takes up to 48 hours after treatment starts ringworm is no longer contagious.
Treatment for Ringworm
The treatment for ringworm is mostly topical for mild infections. You may be prescribed some antifungal cream, ointment or lotion to apply on the infected area. While being treated, ringworm is contagious only up to 48 hours and stops being contagious after that. If you are wrestling, then it is advised to stop it till the infection completely cured. You needn’t worry about ringworm being contagious during treatment. It takes about 3 – 4 weeks for the infection to clear up.
Topical application of a non-prescription antifungal medication such as Lamisil or Micatin twice a day gets rid of ringworm fast. Apply it to the rash and to an area of about 1 inch beyond the edge till the rash clears up. Continue to apply for another week or longer to ensure that the infection doesn’t recur.
If the infection is very severe, then you may have to take oral anti-fungal medication along with the topical application. The oral medication also needs to be taken for a few weeks. If your scalp is infected with ringworm then you have to use an anti-fungal shampoo as well.
The treatment may include application of any of the following creams:
- Clotrimazole – needs to be applied twice a day for a minimum of four weeks.
- Econazole – should be applied twice a day till the rash disappears and then continue for another week.
- Ketoconazole – apply twice a day till the rash clears up and then continue for another few days. This cream is not advised for children.
- Miconazole – apply twice a day as long as the rash is there and continue for another ten days after.
- Terbinafine – apply once or twice a day as advised by the doctor for one to two weeks depending upon the severity of the infection. This too cannot be used for children.
Oral medication can include tablets and pills containing:
The adage prevention is better than cure is the key to success with ringworm. Since ringworm can spread through items, it is best not to share things like:
- Clothes, especially clothes that are in direct contact with the skin, such as; caps, hats, socks, intimates, etc.
Do not scratch the affected areas as it may encourage the infection to spread to the rest of your body.
When you are in the gym, make sure that your feet are covered with socks or shoes to prevent athlete’s foot. Avoid being barefoot.
If you have pets then ensure that they do not suffer from fungal infections. Keep their beds and skin dry and clean. Take them for regular medical exams, especially if you live in a warm humid climate.
Personal hygiene is important in preventing the infection from spreading. Since the ringworm can last on for a long time, it is important to clean, disinfect and dry everything used by an infected person properly before use.
Avoid warm moist areas where fungi thrive.