What Is Scalp Ringworm?

Contrary to what the name might suggest, scalp ringworm isn’t caused by a worm. The infection is the result of a fungus, the same class of organisms (germs) that causes athlete’s foot.

Ringworm is contagious. It can be passed from one person to another by direct skin contact or by contaminated objects, such as unwashed clothing or combs. Dogs and cats can also have the fungus and spread the infection. Ringworm occurs more often during warm-weather months. Young children are most susceptible to it, but people with weakened immune systems also are at risk, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Symptoms include a round, red, scaly rash that may itch. It begins four to 10 days after coming in contact with the fungus and starts as a small, pimple-like bump. This raised area expands, forming an increasingly larger circle. The circle often has a central area that becomes more normal looking (healthier) and a slightly raised reddish border that looks like a ring. Hair at the site of the infection may become brittle and break off easily; the area may end up with hairless patches. If the patch oozes, it may mean that a bacterial infection also has set in. This is more likely in older adults.

Because ringworm is contagious, children may need to stay home from school or child care until they begin treatment. If you suspect that your child is infected, it’s important to tell your health care provider. He or she will need to examine the child’s scalp to diagnose the condition. Treatment may include topical antifungal creams or ointments, oral antifungal medications, and medicated shampoo.

Try these tips to help prevent ringworm:

  • Don’t share clothing, towels, hairbrushes, or hats.

  • Wash hair regularly.

  • Thoroughly clean and dry all combs, brushes, barrettes, and styling accessories.

  • Have pets checked by a vet. They may carry the fungi responsible for ringworm without showing signs of infection.