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Ringworm is a common infection that is caused by a fungus. It is very contagious, and can affect the scalp, face, body, feet or nails. Ringworm affects both humans and animals.
Ringworm gets its name from the raised, ring-shaped pattern the infection forms when it is on the skin. Ringworm is not an actual worm.
The medical term for ringworm is tinea. Some types of tinea include tinea corporis (affecting skin), tinea capitis (affecting the scalp), tinea pedis (affecting the feet, also called athlete’s foot) and tinea cruris (affecting the groin, also called jock itch).
Ringworm affects different parts of the body in different ways.
On the body and groin: it begins as a ring-shaped, flat, scaly rash. Gradually the ring becomes larger and raised, with the inside of the ring clearing. Ringworm on the skin or groin usually appears four to 10 days after contact with an infected person, pet or surface.
On the scalp: ringworm starts as a small pimple that grows larger and creates patches of dry, scaly, bald skin. The hair can become brittle and break off. Sometimes crusty areas develop, which may be mistaken for dandruff. If left untreated, the area can
become boggy (spongy), discharge pus and develop areas of hair loss. This form of ringworm is most common in children. Scalp ringworm usually appears 10 to 14 days after contact with an infected person, pet or surface.
On the fingernails: if the nail bed becomes infected, it can become thick, brittle and discoloured.
On the feet: ringworm causes dry, cracked skin, most often between the toes. It can be quite itchy. It often does not have the usual ring-like appearance.
If you think your child has ringworm, take them to see your GP or to your local pharmacy and, if appropriate, show the affected area to the pharmacist.
Ringworm can be treated effectively with most antifungal medications. These are usually in the form of 'over-the-counter' creams, but nail-bed and scalp infections most often require prescription oral treatments. Early treatment is important and your doctor or pharmacist will be able to advise which treatment is needed. Creams should be applied to the area for an extra week after the rash has cleared. If the rash persists despite a few weeks of treatment, it is important to
be seen by your GP to ensure both the diagnosis and treatment is appropriate.
Ringworm is spread by contact with infected humans, animals and contaminated objects and surfaces. Children are most likely to be infected by other people who already have ringworm, via school playgrounds, gyms, contaminated clothing, bath mats, towels, damp floors and showers.
Because ringworm is very contagious, it can be difficult to prevent. However, there are ways you can help your child avoid being infected:
If your child has ringworm:
Do I need to keep my child home from school if she has ringworm?
There is no need to keep your child home from school, but the rash should be covered by clothing or a dressing to avoid spreading ringworm to others. Avoid being barefoot in public showers; public swimming pools can be used once treatment has been started. Avoid sharing towels.
My child’s feet are extremely itchy from the tinea. What can I do to help? Do you recommend tea tree oil?
Antifungal creams are the best way of treating athlete’s foot. Occasionally, an oral treatment is also needed – discuss this with your doctor or pharmacist. Soaking your child’s feet in salty water or a diluted vinegar foot bath can help to dry blisters. Some people find relief from tea tree oil, but we do not recommend tea tree oil as a treatment because it can cause skin inflammation.
Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Dermatology department. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.
Reviewed July 2020.
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