This common skin condition is caused by a fungal infection which causes a red rash with a distinctive ring shape to appear – hence the name – and is highly contagious. It develops on many areas of the body and is easy to diagnose and treat.

The medical name for ringworm is tinea.

Types of ringworm

There are 5 types of ringworm which are:

  • Scalp ringworm
  • Body ringworm
  • Foot ringworm
  • Groin ringworm
  • Nails ringworm

Scalp ringworm

This causes small, red, scaly patches to develop on the scalp. These are itchy and sore and can cause hair loss. Serious cases cause pus filled sores to develop, accompanied by a fever and swollen glands.

Body ringworm

This is a red, ring shaped rash on the body which is severe cases, is raised above the skin, itchy and liable to form blisters.

Foot ringworm

Or athlete’s foot is a red, itchy, flaky rash between the toes, caused by warm or moist environments such as showers, changing rooms or saunas. Severe cases of foot ringworm cause swelling and cracked skin between the toes and small blisters which ooze or crust over. This causes a burning sensation in and around the sides of your foot.

Athlete’s foot is discussed in more detail as a separate section.

Groin ringworm

Also known as ‘jock itch’: this causes small, reddish-brown sores to form in the genital area, inner thighs and buttocks. These form an itchy red rash which becomes scaly and flakes, particularly on the inner thigh. This is exacerbated by tight underwear, sweating and exercise.

Very often, groin and foot ringworm develops at the same time due to the easy transference of the fungal infection from groin to foot or vice versa. This often happens if you have scratched one area and then touch another area.

Nails ringworm

This is an infection of the nails which causes discolouration, a thick white coating and soreness in the surrounding area. The nails become crumbly and start to fall off.

How infectious is ringworm?

Very: it spreads from one person to another via direct contact or sharing bedding, towels etc. Even pets such as cats and dogs get ringworm which they then pass on to you and other people.

It’s a good idea to warn your friends the next time they visit you and make a fuss of your pets.

How common is ringworm?

It affects roughly 20% of the UK population. This 20% will develop ringworm at some time in their lives although children are more likely to be affected than adults.

Causes of ringworm

Ringworm is caused by a fungal infection which thrives from direct contact with keratin, a tissue in the skin, hair, nails and many other areas of the body. This is why ringworm develops in those areas of the body.

The fungal infection consists of microscopic spores which are spread via person to person contact; from animals to people; touching an infected object or handling infected soil.

These spores exist for months before they trigger an infection.

One thing to bear in mind is that you could be a carrier of ringworm without any of the symptoms. This is due to you having built up a resistance to ringworm by the time you became an adult. But the danger with this is if you are a parent then you may pass this infection onto your children or other children you come into contact with.

Risk groups

Some groups of people are more at risk of developing ringworm than others. These include:

  • People who have had ringworm before
  • Young children
  • The elderly
  • People of African-Caribbean race (scalp ringworm only)
  • Overweight or obese
  • Poor circulation
  • Poorly functioning immune system caused by a medical condition, e.g. HIV.
  • Receiving cancer treatment, e.g. chemotherapy
  • Certain types of medication which weakens your immunity, e.g. steroids.
  • Hardening of the arteries
  • Type 1 diabetes

If you fall into any of these groups and develop the symptoms of ringworm then see your GP.

Diagnosing ringworm

If you are in any of the high risk groups mentioned above then visit your GP. But also see him/her if your ringworm has not improved after a couple of weeks or you or your child has scalp ringworm.

There are several types of ringworm but the one thing they all have in common is red, itchy, irritated skin which may blister and leak fluid such as pus.

Ringworm is easy to diagnose. Your GP will examine you before asking you questions about your medical and family history. He/she will ask you about your child’s health if you are a parent.

Your GP may perform a skin biopsy in which a small section of skin (containing the rash) is removed from your scalp or body. This sample is then sent for laboratory analysis. This will determine the exact cause of your ringworm and what type.

Treatment for ringworm

This depends upon the type of ringworm but treatment includes anti-fungal creams/shampoos, medication and personal hygiene tips.

If you have scalp ringworm then this will be prescribed an anti-fungal shampoo along with tablets. There are two types of tablets which include Griseofulvin and Terbinafine.

An anti-fungal shampoo stops the fungal infection from spreading but is not a cure for this condition. These shampoos are to be used twice a week to start with and are available from your pharmacist.

Body ringworm is treated with creams, lotions, gels or sprays which can be purchased from your pharmacist. These are applied to the areas affected by the rash for a set period of time.

There is also a medicine called Sporanox (itraconazole) which is used for fungal infections. It is available as capsules which destroy certain types of fungi but there are side effects with this medicine. It is only available on prescription.

Complications of ringworm

The main risk with this infection is that it spreads from one part of the body to another. This is more likely if your immune system is below par or you fail to take steps to prevent it from spreading.

There is a risk of scarring with scalp ringworm but this is rare.

Preventing ringworm

This is a matter of personal hygiene. Ringworm is very infectious so follow a few hygiene tips such as:

  • Changing socks and underwear daily
  • Washing the infected areas on a daily basis
  • Wash bedding, towels and clothes frequently and keep these separate from others.
  • Wear loose fitting cotton clothing
  • Avoid tight fitting underwear (groin ringworm)
  • Ask everyone in your family to check for signs of ringworm
  • Do not scratch or pick at areas of infected skin
  • If your child has scalp ringworm then wash their hair with an anti-fungal shampoo at least twice a week. If they are old enough to this for themselves then encourage them to do so.
  • If you have a cat or dog which you think has ringworm then take it to the vet’s. Patches of missing fur are a sign of ringworm.

This is a mainly, mild infection which is easy to treat.