The symptoms of ringworm are quite distinctive, and when combined with a knowledge of common risk factors for ringworm, they can cinch a diagnosis. Fortunately, ringworm treatments are available over the counter in many regions, but if treatment fails to take effect within a week, it may be necessary to consult a doctor to confirm the problem is ringworm, and to get access to stronger drugs. People who suspect that they have ringworm should be aware they are highly contagious to other people and to pets like cats and dogs.
Before delving into the symptoms of ringworm, it may help to know more about ringworm. Despite the name, this skin condition is not caused by worms. It is actually the result of infection with a fungus, and it can appear in several spots on the body, including the scalp, beard, groin, skin, and feet. Doctors refer to ringworm as “tinea,” and they often append a term to describe the location, as in the case of tinea pedis, ringworm on the feet, also known as athlete's foot.
The most common risk factor for exposure to ringworm is exposure to an environment where the fungus can thrive. Gyms tend to be harbors for the fungus, since it likes the warm, moist floors of places like showers and locker rooms, transferring to the feet of gym users. Ringworm is also common in crowded environments. Children tend to be more at risk, because of communal athletic areas, as do athletes. People who work or live with animals may also be at risk, because ringworm can live on cats and dogs, too. If the symptoms of ringworm appear in people who are at increased risk, it is highly likely that ringworm is the cause, rather than another skin condition.
Ringworm usually starts out as a small reddish area on the skin which may be slightly flaky and itchy. As the fungus settles in, the area will turn distinctly scaly, and it may blister and ooze as well. Classically, a white ring appears around the reddish area, explaining the term “ringworm,” and the site is usually very itchy. If ringworm attacks the hands and feet, the nails may start to crumble and break off.
Ringworm especially loves folds of the skin, because they are moist, dark, and warm. The symptoms of ringworm often start between the toes, in the folds of the groin, and behind the ears. In cases where ringworm develops on the scalp or under a beard, it may take some time for the condition to be noticed, as the itching may be dismissed until the reddish area becomes apparent. Hair loss can also occur with ringworm in these areas.
Treatment for ringworm involves the application of a topical anti-fungal to kill the fungus. In cases where the scales have opened up and become infected, an antibiotic may also be prescribed. It is also important to wash all garments which the ringworm have come into contact with, and to avoid touching people, pets, carpets, and drapery with an active ringworm infection. If the symptoms of ringworm appear in other members of the household, they should be treated immediately to head the fungus off at the pass.