Kids health

Does my child have ringworm?

A suspicious-looking rash on your kid is always worrisome. If it's circular and itchy, it might be ringworm. Here's how to spot it and what to do about it.

Does your child have a circular, flaky rash with a raised, red border? There’s a good chance it’s ringworm. While the name is enough to make your skin crawl, ringworm isn’t as scary as it sounds. In fact, it isn’t even caused by a worm—it’s named after its raised, ring-like appearance. And the good news is, it’s treatable. Here’s everything you need to know about ringworm in kids.

What is ringworm?

Ringworm is a common fungal infection. It’s caused by fungi known as dermatophytes, which feed on the keratin in hair, nails, and dead skin. Dermatophytes thrive in warm, moist environments.

The medical term for ringworm is “tinea.” It can affect the body (tinea corporis), the scalp (tinea capitis), the groin (tinea cruris, or jock itch), or the feet (tinea pedis, or athlete’s foot).

Ringworm symptoms

The symptoms of ringworm vary depending on what part of the body it’s located.

Ringworm on the body (tinea corporis) shows up as circular or oval patches of flaky skin with red, raised borders. It may or may not itch, and it sometimes becomes inflamed and can have visible small pustules.

Ringworm on the scalp (tinea capitis) can cause round patches of scaly and itchy skin, black dots, broken hairs, or hair loss. Severe cases can develop into a kerion—an inflamed, pus-filled mass that is sometimes accompanied by a fever.

Ringworm on the groin (tinea cruris) affects the buttocks and genitals, and spreads down the inner thighs. It looks similar to tinea corporis, and can be very itchy. It is sometimes called jock itch because it’s common in athletes and those who sweat a lot.

Ringworm on the feet (tinea pedis), which is also known as athlete’s foot, can cause cracked, sore, and itchy skin. It usually starts between the toes and can spread to the feet and nails. 

Ringworm causes

close up of a black kid's mouth showing chicken pox Here's what kids' rashes look like on darker skin (finally!)Ringworm is highly contagious, and it can pass from animals to people. You can get ringworm several ways:

  • Touching infected people or pets
  • Sharing contaminated clothing and personal items
  • Walking barefoot in public showers and locker rooms
  • Playing or walking in contaminated soil or sand

While anyone can get ringworm, children are more susceptible. According to Michelle Ponti, a pediatrician from London, ON, that’s because children have more physical contact with each other and tend to share personal objects.

How is ringworm diagnosed?

A doctor or dermatologist can diagnose ringworm by taking a patient history and inspecting the rash. With its telltale pattern, ringworm is usually easy to diagnose—but it can sometimes be confused with other skin conditions like eczema, atopic dermatitis, or a bacterial infection like impetigo.

“If we really want to know what is the cause of a rash,” says Ponti, “What we will do is take a little skin scraping and send it off to the lab for identification. But for something as common and as familiar as ringworm, we do not often do that.” 

Ringworm treatment

If you or your child has ringworm, a doctor will recommend an antifungal cream. That usually does the trick, but it takes several weeks to work. If the rash is particularly stubborn, or is located on the scalp, an oral medication may be prescribed.

Ringworm is contagious until it disappears, so avoid touching or itching the infected area—it can quickly spread to other parts of the body. The area should be kept clean and dry, as moisture can cause it to spread. For that reason, resist the urge to cover it with bandages.

If you have pets, have them examined by a veterinarian. They could have ringworm without you knowing it, and the last thing you want is the rash to come back.

How can you prevent ringworm?

The best way to keep your child from getting ringworm is by encouraging good hygiene and taking precautions around pets. Here are some tips for preventing ringworm:

  • Keep skin clean and dry
  • Don’t touch infected people or pets
  • Wash hands after touching animals
  • Avoid sharing personal items like clothing, towels, combs and hats
  • Wear shoes or flip flops in public showers, pools, and locker rooms
  • If pets have ringworm, have them treated and thoroughly disinfect the home

Read more:
10 common rashes on kids (with photos): Symptoms and treatment
An age-by-age guide to skin rashes and conditions