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How Contagious Is Ringworm?
Q: Is ringworm contagious? How should it be treated?
A: Despite what its name suggests, ringworm is not caused by a worm, but rather by a fungal (yeast) infection. It looks like a circular rash on the skin that may appear as an itchy, red, flaky patch. The center of the circular rash heals first, leaving the ring of redness on the outside; hence its name. Ringworm can also appear on the scalp as a flaky patch of baldness.
Over-the-counter anti-fungal creams found in pharmacies can be used to treat this skin infection. It usually takes up to a week or so to clear. If the ringworm returns or seems to worsen, have your child's pediatrician evaluate it. Instead of putting cream on the skin, taking a medicine by mouth (tablets or liquids) may be necessary, particularly when the fungal infection involves the scalp.
Ringworm is contagious (spread to others) through direct contact with an infected person or animal. It can also be spread indirectly through contact with the clothes, combs, or brushes of others who have it. Once treatment has begun and the circular rash begins to shrink, the rash won't be contagious. Until then, however, a person with ringworm can spread it to others.
To help prevent your child from getting ringworm after contact with an infected person or animal, it's important that your child wash his hands often and avoids sharing personal items (clothes, hats, brushes, and combs). If your child already has ringworm, be sure to wash bathroom surfaces and toys daily. If your pet has a rash, have it evaluated by a veterinarian. If it's caused by a fungus, your child should avoid contact with the animal until the rash has been treated.
Additional Quick Facts on Ringworm
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics offer these additional facts on ringworm:
- Common symptoms of ringworm include itchy, scaly, or cracked skin; a reddish, ring-shaped rash; and hair loss, in cases of ringworm of the scalp.
- Ringworm can affect almost any area of the body, including feet ("athlete's foot"), fingernails, toenails, the groin, and the scalp.
- Anyone can get ringworm, but those most at risk include people who use public locker rooms or showers (especially if they're barefoot), athletes (particularly those who play contact sports, such as wrestling), people who wear tight shoes and sweat excessively, and people in close contact with animals.
- If you suspect your child has ringworm, try treating it with an over-the-counter anti-fungal cream, lotion, or powder; clean any surfaces your child has touched; and advise your child not to share personal items, such as towels and hairbrushes, with anyone. If the ringworm worsens, or if it affects the scalp, contact your child's doctor for a stronger medication.
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Henry Bernstein, M.D., is currently the associate chief of the Division of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital, Boston. He also has an academic appointment at Harvard Medical School.