What is ringworm?

Ringworm is the medical term given to a skin infection caused by a fungus. It can affect various parts of the body, including the scalp, fingers, nails, groin and feet.

The fungi which cause ringworm are transmitted primarily - though not exclusively - through contact with animals.

How do you get ringworm?

Ringworm is usually transmitted by coming into close contact with animals such as cats, dogs, hamsters, farm animals, guinea pigs, rabbits etc. It can also be passed from person to person. The fungi normally enter the body through a break in the skin – such as a scratch or cut.

Children are very prone to ringworm and they can easily pass it around to other children with whom they come into contact. Adults can also develop ringworm, particularly those who work with animals such as farmers and those in the veterinary industry.

What are the symptoms?

Skin: The one distinctive characteristic of ringworm is a ring-shaped or oval patch of scaly red skin. The red scales are confined to the outer edges of the ring, while inside the ring the skin may not look nearly as inflamed or scaly. The infected areas are usually itchy.

Scalp: If the ringworm is confined to the scalp, there may be bald patches on the head and the skin will have a bumpy, scaly appearance. In more severe cases, a kerion may develop on the scalp. This is a swollen mass discharging pus, which is not only unsightly, but may also be very painful. If left untreated, this form of ringworm may lead to alopecia (baldness) and may be very difficult to cure.

Nails: Nails affected by ringworm are characterised by a gradual thickening of the nail and nail bed, which is whitish in appearance. The nail becomes thick, discoloured and may eventually be permanently damaged if left untreated.

Ringworm can also affect the groin (see ringworm of the groin) and feet (see athlete’s foot).

How is it diagnosed?

Most people can recognise ringworm by physical appearance alone. However, it may be necessary for your GP to take a scraping from the site of the infection and send it to the laboratory in order to identify the particular type of fungus responsible. In most cases this is not necessary because the diagnosis is usually obvious on simple inspection.

What is the treatment?

Depending on the type of ringworm and its severity, the normal course of treatment is to prescribe antifungal cream for the affected area or a course of antifungal tablets.

How can I prevent ringworm?

If you or a family member has ringworm, take the following measures to prevent it from spreading:

Reviewed: November 20, 2006