Ringworm is not caused by a worm at all, but by a fungus. Ringworm occurs on all parts of the skin but is known as jock itch when it infects the groin area and as athlete's foot when it appears on the feet. There are often several patches of ringworm on the skin at once, but in most cases it can be treated with over-the-counter products without requiring a physician's care.
Ringworm appears as itchy, raised patches of scaly skin. These patches, which have sharply defined edges, may blister and ooze. The skin is often red around the outside and appears as a normal color inside the ring. Ringworm can also infect the scalp or beard, where it leaves bald patches. When it infects the skin beneath the nails, the nails will discolor, thicken and even crumble.
Ringworm is common among children, but infects people of all ages. It occurs when a certain type of fungus infects the skin, scalp or nails. It is contagious and passes from person to person by direct skin-to-skin contact or by contact with contaminated items such as combs, clothing, shower or pool surfaces or infected pets. The fungus thrives and grows in warm, moist areas.
A physician will generally diagnose ringworm by its appearance on the skin. More definitive tests utilize a blue light to examine the infected area. The skin will appear fluorescent if ringworm is present. Diagnosis can also be determined by taking a scraping from the infected area and examining it under a microscope.
Ringworm can most often be treated at home and treatment is generally successful within four weeks of beginning care. Keep skin clean and dry during treatment. Antifungal and drying powders, creams and lotions should be used. Bedsheets and nightclothes should be washed every day, and any infected pets should also be treated. Some of the more common antifungal creams available include clotrimazole, miconazole, ketoconazole and terbinafine.
The environment of the infected person should also be cleansed during treatment to prevent re-infection. A 1-to-10 bleach-to-water solution will kill about 80 percent of the fungal spores that cause ringworm with one cleaning application. Carpets should be vacuumed and steam-cleaned to help remove the fungal spores. Vacuum bags should be discarded after cleaning.
Ringworm infection may require a physician's care if it is severe, persistent or does not respond to home treatment. If your hair or beard is infected, you will also need to see your physician, who may prescribe antifungal pills and skin-care products. Prescription antifungal skin medications are stronger than over-the-counter products and may be needed in certain cases. Antibiotics may also be prescribed to treat potential bacterial infections resulting from the ringworm infection.
To prevent ringworm, keep skin and feet clean and dry. Shampoo your hair often, especially after getting a haircut. Do not share clothing, towels, combs and brushes or other personal-care items with other people. Wear sandals when visiting a gym, locker area or public pools.