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Ringworm infection takes on many forms

Diseases and Illnesses

Despite its name, ringworm is not caused by a worm. Instead, it develops when fungus grows and multiplies on the skin. Dr. Dakara Rucker Wright, a dermatologist with the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group who practices at Kaiser Permanente's Towson Medical Center, said the disease, most common in children, is easy to treat.

What is ringworm and are there different types?

"Ringworm" is an infection caused by fungus that can affect the hair, skin and nails. It is common among children but may affect people of all ages. The medical term for ringworm depends on the location of the infection; ringworm of the beard is tinea barbae; of the body, tinea corporis; of the feet ("athlete's foot"), tinea pedis; of the groin area ("jock itch"), tinea cruris; of the scalp, tinea capitis; of the fingers or toenails, is tinea unguium

What causes it?

Ringworm is caused by a fungus called a dermatophyte, not a worm. Fungi grow best in warm, moist environments, such as locker rooms, showers and swimming pools. In humans, the fungus lives and spreads on the top layer of the skin, hair or nails. Ringworm is contagious and can be spread by skin-to-skin contact with an infected individual, or by sharing contaminated clothing, towels, combs, hats or bedsheets with someone who has ringworm. The fungal infection can also be picked up by touching an infected dog or cat.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may vary based on the location of the infection. Tinea corporis, or ringworm of the skin on the body, itches and usually looks like a red, dry rash with a clear center, hence the name "ringworm." Ringworm of the groin, or jock itch, can affect men and women and is an itchy rash with a red border.

Ringworm of the feet, or athlete's foot, usually begins between the toes and spreads to the soles and sides of the feet causing itch, skin peeling, dryness, cracking and scales. Occasionally there is just a single patch or intensely itchy blisters on the foot. Scratching the area can lead to ringworm of the hands, which causes dry, itchy, peeling palms.

The symptoms of ringworm of the scalp, or tinea capitis, can be severe or mild and most commonly affects school-age children. It looks like an area of dryness or scale. Patches of hair loss or black dots in the scalp may also be present, as well as swelling of the nearby glands in the scalp or neck.

Fungal infection of the fingers or toenails is usually accompanied by tinea pedis (athlete's foot). The nails look yellow, thickened and break easily. Toenails are more commonly infected than fingernails.

How is it diagnosed?

A dermatologist or other health care provider can diagnose ringworm by looking at the rash. He or she may scrape some of the scale off of the affected hair, nails or skin and look at it under a microscope to see if fungi are present. Alternatively, the scrapings may be sent to a lab for fungal culture. Rarely, a biopsy is needed for confirmation.

How is it treated?

Ringworm of the skin or feet can be treated at home with an over-the-counter antifungal cream or spray; sometimes a prescription antifungal cream may be needed. The skin infection usually clears up within two to four weeks but in darker skin can leave dark spots that may take longer to fade. Ringworm of the scalp or nails usually requires an oral medication to be taken for a couple of months in order to effectively kill the fungus. However, one can get reinfected with ringworm if re-exposed to another person or object, or if treatment is not fully completed. Untreated ringworm of the scalp can lead to permanent hair loss.

How do you prevent ringworm?

There are some easy preventive measures you can take to help reduce your risk of ringworm.

Do not share clothing, sports gear, head gear, towels or sheets. If you think you have been exposed to ringworm, wash your clothes in hot water. Wear shower shoes or flip-flops in locker rooms and public bathing areas. Do not walk barefoot in public places like hotel rooms. Shower and shampoo well after any sport that includes skin-to-skin contact. Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothing. Keep your skin and feet clean and dry. Always dry your body and feet completely after showering or swimming. Change socks daily, or more often, if they become damp. Take your pet to the vet if it has patches of missing hair, which could be a sign of a fungal infection.

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ankwalker

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