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Ringworm is a type of rash that looks like a pink or red worm has curled up just under the skin. However, ringworm is not actually a worm at all. It is a contagious fungal infection called tinea, or dermatophytosis.
Spotting a ringworm rash in a baby can be alarming, but it is unlikely to cause any long-term harm. It may be difficult to distinguish ringworm from other common infant rashes, so it is best to see a doctor for a diagnosis.
Ringworm is very treatable, and over-the-counter (OTC) remedies often clear it up within a few days.
In this article, learn more about ringworm in babies, including the symptoms, causes, and treatments.
Several types of fungi can cause ringworm. The fungi that cause this infection can live on the skin, clothing, towels, and other surfaces.
The infection can spread from one person to another, especially if they are in close contact or share certain items, such as clothing and linens.
For most babies, ringworm is a mild infection, but it may itch or be painful. Without treatment, the rash may spread. Babies who scratch the rash may introduce bacteria into the wound, which can cause a more serious bacterial infection. For this reason, it is essential to get treatment.
Ringworm can appear on any part of the body. For most babies, the rash appears as a circular or wavy rash with a raised border.
The center is slightly indented. The rash typically is red or pink.
Other symptoms include:
- itchy, irritated skin
- persistent scratching of the skin
- frequent crying
- changes in behavior, such as trouble sleeping or more frequent nursing
Athlete’s foot is ringworm on the soles of the feet, the toes, or the toenails. It is very uncommon in babies, but it may occasionally affect toddlers. Symptoms of athlete’s foot may include:
- dry, peeling skin
- changes in the nails
- nail loss
Babies can contract ringworm from coming into contact with a person or animal with the infection. Common ways a baby acquires ringworm include:
- petting a dog or cat with ringworm
- sharing pillows, towels, or linens with someone who has ringworm
- walking barefoot
- hugging people with ringworm
- touching things a person with ringworm has recently touched
Babies and children are more likely to get ringworm because they are more often in close contact with others, and because they are less aware of hygiene concerns.
Babies in daycare settings are especially vulnerable. If one child in daycare gets ringworm, the infection can sometimes spread through the entire facility.
A doctor can often diagnose ringworm just by looking at the skin, especially if the rash has the characteristic raised border.
If a doctor is uncertain whether ringworm is the culprit, they may take a small sample of the skin to examine under a microscope.
Most ringworm infections respond well to OTC treatments. Consider trying an antifungal cream, such as clotrimazole, miconazole, or ketoconazole.
Antifungal creams are available in pharmacies and online. Various manufacturers offer these products under different brand names, so look for a ringworm-specific product that is approved for your baby’s age.
With treatment, ringworm usually goes away within a few weeks. Itching and other symptoms tend to get better in a few days. Ringworm is not contagious after 2–3 days of treatment.
If ringworm is on the scalp, the baby will likely need a prescription antifungal medicine. Ringworm on the scalp can take several months to disappear. The doctor may also recommend using special shampoos to avoid irritating the rash.
If ringworm gets worse after beginning treatment, if the baby develops a fever, or if the rash looks very red and irritated, it may be infected.
An infected ringworm rash may require treatment with antibiotics, so it is best to take the baby to the doctor.
It is unwise to delay treatment for ringworm. While ringworm is usually a mild infection, bacteria may cause more serious problems if they infect the rash, especially if a baby aggressively scratches it.
Preterm babies and those with weak immune systems are especially vulnerable to complications.
There is only very limited and inconclusive research on the effectiveness of various natural and home remedies.
Like prescription and OTC medications, home remedies can cause side effects. So, it is best to talk to a doctor about treatment before trying a home remedy.
Some caregivers also try home remedies alongside standard treatments to speed up healing or prevent another outbreak.
If the skin looks broken or shows signs of infection, or if the baby has a history of eczema or allergies, see a pediatrician or dermatologist before applying anything to the rash.
Some people choose to apply breast milk to a baby’s rashes and skin irritation. Breast milk is rich in antibodies, but there is no evidence to suggest that it can treat ringworm. If it appears to ease symptoms, it is safe to use breast milk along with medical treatment.
Preventing ringworm in babies can be difficult because they require close contact with others through nursing, diaper changes, and rocking.
There is no strategy that can completely prevent ringworm, but some strategies can lower the risk. These strategies may include:
- not allowing babies to walk or crawl on surfaces that increase the risk of fungal infection, such as showers and gym locker rooms
- keeping the baby home from daycare if another child has ringworm
- putting socks or shoes on babies who have just started walking
- changing babies out of wet clothes and diapers
- not allowing a baby to share a pillow or bed with a family member who has ringworm
If a household member has ringworm, have them keep the rash covered with clothing or a bandage until it is no longer contagious.
Seeing a painful-looking red rash on a baby can be alarming. However, ringworm is rarely serious.
If symptoms do not disappear within a few weeks of starting treatment, return to the doctor. The baby may need a different or more powerful antifungal medication.
Because babies develop many types of rash, it is important to get an accurate diagnosis for suspected ringworm.
Antifungal medications will not treat most other rashes and may delay proper treatment. A pediatrician or pediatric dermatologist can quickly diagnose most rashes in babies.