What is it?
Ringworm of the scalp is one of several forms of ringworm, a type of fungal infection that affects the skin, nails and scalp. Ringworm of the scalp is most common in toddlers and school-age children, causing red, itchy, bald-looking patches on the scalp.
Also called tinea capitis, ringworm of the scalp is closely related to other fungal infections with similar names:
- Ringworm of the body (tinea corporis). This form causes a red, scaly ring or circle of rash on the top layer of your skin.
- Athlete's foot (tinea pedis). This form of ringworm affects the moist areas between your toes and sometimes on the foot itself.
- Jock itch (tinea cruris). This form affects your genitals, inner upper thighs and buttocks.
The signs and symptoms of ringworm of the scalp include:
- One or more round patches of scaly skin where the hair has broken off at or just above the scalp
- Patches that slowly expand or enlarge
- Scaly, gray or reddened areas
- Patches that have small black dots if your child has dark hair
- Brittle or fragile hair that easily pulls out
- Tender or painful areas on the scalp
Ringworm of the scalp is persistent and contagious if not treated. It spreads easily through person-to-person contact or through contact with pets and shared objects.
Fungal infections, such as ringworm, are caused by microorganisms that become parasites on the body. These mould-like fungi (dermatophytes) attack the outer layer of skin on the scalp and invade the hair shaft, causing it to break.
Ringworm is contagious and can spread in the following ways:
- Human to human. Ringworm often spreads through direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected person.
- Object to human. Ringworm can spread through contact with objects or surfaces that an infected person or animal has touched, such as clothing, towels, bed linens, combs or brushes.
- Animal to human. Dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits, goats, pigs and horses can spread ringworm to humans. Your child can contract ringworm by grooming or petting an animal with ringworm.
- Exposure to other children. Though adults can get ringworm of the scalp, it occurs most often in toddlers and school-age children. Outbreaks of ringworm are common in schools and child care centers where the infection easily spreads through close physical contact or by touching common items, such as door handles.
- Exposure to pets. In addition, children with pets are at increased risk of ringworm. A pet, such as a cat or dog, can have the infection without showing any signs. Children can get the infection by touching or petting the animal.
Others factors that increase the risk of ringworm of the scalp include:
- Poor hygiene
- Overcrowded living conditions
In some cases, ringworm of the scalp causes kerion — a severe, painful inflammation of the scalp. Kerion appears as soft, raised swellings that drain pus and cause thick, yellow crusting on the scalp. Instead of breaking, the hair falls out or can be easily pulled out. Kerion may be caused by an overly vigorous reaction to the fungus and can lead to permanent scars and hair loss.
Your doctor will determine if your child has ringworm or another skin disorder, such as seborrheic dermatitis or psoriasis. He or she will ask about possible exposure to contaminated areas or contact with people or animals with ringworm.
Your doctor may take skin scrapings or samples of a few hairs plucked from the infected area and examine them under a microscope. If a sample shows fungi, treatment includes an antifungal medication. If the test is negative but your doctor still suspects ringworm, a sample may be sent to a lab for further testing. Your doctor may also order tests if your child's condition doesn't respond to treatment.