You’ve probably heard of ringworm before. You may have thought of creepy crawlies getting under your skin and eating away at you while you sleep.
Don’t worry, it’s nowhere near as gruesome as all that. Ringworm is simply a rash. So what causes it, if it’s not a worm? How is ringworm spread? How can you prevent it? Read on and see.
What Is Ringworm Anyway?
In short, ringworm is a fungal infection. It is not a serious problem, but it is very common and incredibly contagious.
Dermatophytes (the type of fungi that cause ringworm) feed on keratin, which is present in human skin, nails, and hair. While they typically infest people’s skin, they can prosper just as well on the nails. There are different names for them based on their place of growth. Athlete’s foot is the type that lives on the feet, jock itch lives on the groin, and ringworm of the scalp is pretty self-explanatory.
Ringworm of the body is the only kind that causes a rash in the shape that you know and don’t love. It is circular or ring-shaped, with slightly raised edges. They are usually itchy and spread as the infection progresses. If the infection is particularly severe, the rings will multiply and come together, and you can even get blisters near the rings.
They can’t cause serious damage to your body, but they are very uncomfortable, annoying, and sometimes very difficult to get rid of.
Who Is at Risk?
Everyone can get infected. However, children are more prone to the infection, simply because they go around touching stuff much more than grown-ups do.
Like all fungi, ringworm likes damp, warm spaces. That means that you’re at a higher risk of infection if you live in a humid area. Sweating a lot also provides a nice environment for the fungi, and contact sports provide plenty of opportunities for ringworm to spread, so athletes are at a slightly higher risk as well. Tight clothing also creates a nice breeding ground for dermatophytes, because of the restricted airflow. Those skinny jeans suddenly don’t look so appealing anymore, right?
Having a weak immune system doesn’t necessarily affect your chances of getting infected, but it does make it much more difficult to get rid of the infection. Therefore, organ transplant patients and those with HIV or AIDS might want to be extra careful in avoiding ringworm.
So, how is ringworm spread? Well, there are several ways.
1. From Person to Person
The first and most obvious way is from person to person. Being in physical contact with an infected person will likely cause you to get infected as well. A short contact, such as a handshake, is all it takes for a spore to find its way to you, and the moment it starts feeding, it’ll start spreading as well.
What’s worse is that you may not see that the other person is infected. The period of incubation is from one to two weeks, and during that time the infected person shows no symptoms of infection.
Also, people are still contagious when they start using medication. Covering the rash with antifungal cream can decrease the risk of spreading the infection, but it doesn’t eliminate it.
If you have the infection, make sure you pay a lot of attention to personal hygiene, especially when you are around other people. Try not to scratch, even though it’s easier said than done. This can help minimize the chance of infecting others.
2. From Animal to Person
If your pet is infected, you’ll probably get infected as well. The situation gets even worse because, in general, the symptoms won’t be visible for the first two to four weeks. Even when they do become noticeable, chances are you won’t notice them for a couple of weeks more. This gives the spores more than enough time to get to you – and you won’t even notice them on yourself until after the period of incubation passes.
Your pets can also leave the spores around when they move, rub against the furniture, or sleep on it. Furthermore, house pets are not the only animals that can spread ringworm to you. Horses, goats, and pigs can host and spread the fungi as well.
3. From Object to Person
You can easily catch the infection by using other people’s stuff. The spores can live up to 12 to 20 months if the environment suits them and they have enough food. This means that people’s clothes, bedding, hairbrushes, and similar items which are full of microscopic parts of dead skin, can host the spores for quite a long time.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that things that are free of dead skin particles are also free of spores. It just means that the spores won’t be able to survive as long – but they can infect you just as well.
To prevent this, avoid using other people’s towels, hairbrushes, bedding, clothes, and so on. If you use the shower when you go to the gym, for example, try to wear protective footwear.
4. From Soil to Person
You can get infected through contact with highly infected soil, though this is very rare. Your skin would need to touch the soil for an extended amount of time. In practice, this means that you’ll have to stand or walk barefoot to give the spores enough time to attack.
The infection will rarely go below the surface of the skin. However, in patients whose immune system is compromised or suppressed, ringworm can be irritatingly stubborn and cause a lot of grief.
The only complication could be a secondary bacterial infection that happens because your skin is broken or irritated, but you can usually deal with them fairly easily by taking antibiotics.
Even though it’s not a worm, ringworm is definitely a pest. It is very contagious, so it is very common as well. It isn’t dangerous or very painful, but it is annoying and uncomfortable, and, in some cases, downright ugly. Luckily, most of the time it’s easily preventable by taking good care of your hygiene.