Ringworm of the scalp, also known as tinea capitis, is a fungal infection. Its unusual name comes from the shape it makes on your skin. It often looks circular, like a ring, and the edges are slightly raised.
Don’t let the name fool you – ringworm itself has nothing to do with an actual worm. However, it is very contagious. When tinea capitis affects the scalp, it can be spread through direct contact. It can also be spread by sharing things like combs, towels, or even pillows.
Adult ringworm usually appears as itchy, scaly patches of skin on the scalp. Contracting it as an adult in the first place is rarer than it is for children. It’s often a condition that affects kids more often than adults. However, it can be just as difficult to deal with as an adult.
This article will cover the main signs of ringworm, as well as various causes. The most important thing, however, is learning how to get rid of ringworm at home. We will also cover some preventative measures you can use to protect yourself and those around you.
Table of Contents:
- 1 What Causes Tinea Capitis?
- 2 Who is Most at Risk of Getting Ringworm as an Adult?
- 3 What Are the Symptoms of the Condition?
- 4 How is Ringworm of the Scalp Diagnosed?
- 5 What are My Treatment Options?
- 6 What Are the Best Over-the-Counter Ringworm Shampoos?
- 7 Natural Ways of Treating Ringworm
- 8 How Can I Prevent Ringworm from Recurring?
- 9 Will Tinea Capitis Always Respond to Treatment?
What Causes Tinea Capitis?
Ringworm of the scalp is caused by a specific type of fungi, called dermatophytes. Not only does this fungus attack your skin on the outermost layer, but it penetrates to the hair shaft. Since we already know this condition isn’t cause by a worm, what does cause this unsightly fungus to appear?
It’s important to understand that fungi are all around us, every day. Different types of fungi can cause different conditions all over the body. Unfortunately, they live in common places, and are spread easily from person to person, or even from object to person. Ringworm of the scalp is typically caused by transmission. The most common causes include:
- Person-to-person: Skin-to-skin contact is an easy way for ringworm to get transferred between people. If you touch someone who has tinea capitis (or ringworm elsewhere on the body), you could easily contract the fungal infection.
- Object-to-person: It can be hard to avoid the regular use of everyday objects like combs, pillows, hats, etc. Unfortunately, if you use an object that has recently been used by someone with ringworm, they could pass it on to you. Think closely about the objects you touch on a daily basis, and avoid them if you know someone you live with or someone else who touched them has ringworm anywhere on the body.
- Animal-to-person: Ringworm is often associated with household pets. You can get it from your animal by petting them. Don’t assume that it’s just domesticated animals, either. Animals like cows, horses, and pigs are often carriers, as well.
Ringworm is also often associated with children. This is usually because children tend to be exposed to more carriers, and more prone to touching other things and people. However, it’s just as easy for adults to contract it – sometimes without even knowing they’ve come in contact with someone (or something) that has the fungus living on it.
Where Does Ringworm Thrive?
Like most other fungi, ringworm will thrive in moist and warm places. The scalp can be a great home for fungus to grow and spread. But, you should also be aware of your environments when it comes to avoiding getting ringworm in the first place.
Areas like public pools, showers, or locker rooms can be a breeding ground for this type of infection. It also tends to occur on areas of the body with this type of environment, too. Other types of ringworm include:
- Ringworm of the body (tinea corporis)
- Athlete’s foot (tinea pedis)
- Jock itch (tinea cruris)
Things like poor hygiene and excessive sweating can contribute to the growth and spreading of this fungal infection. An unclean scalp is the ideal breeding ground for ringworm to spread if it’s not properly removed.
Are There Any Risks Involved?
The biggest risk with almost any fungal infection is that it grows and spreads quickly. If it’s not treated, it can lead to bigger health problems. These complications aren’t common with every case, but if not treated, they can be painful and embarrassing.
One of the biggest complications associated with tinea capitis is known as kerion. It is usually caused by the body’s reaction to the fungus itself. It causes thick crust to form on the scalp, as well as inflammation and itching. One of the side effects is that the hair becomes extremely brittle. It will usually either fall out on its own, or can be easily pulled out with little effort.
Experiencing kerion isn’t common when people who treat ringworm fast. If left untreated, it can lead to a lot of pain and discomfort. It can also lead to permanent balding.
Who is Most at Risk of Getting Ringworm as an Adult?
No one is immune from getting this skin condition as an adult. However, circumstances and different situations tend to put certain people at risk more than others. Some professions that have a greater risk of getting ringworm include:
- Hairdressers and stylists – Since they work directly with the hair and scalp all day, through direct contact, hairdressers need to be careful.
- School nurses – Children are more prone to getting ringworm. If they go to see a school nurse, that simple contact can cause the infection to spread from the child to the adult.
- Daycare workers – Again, keep in mind that it’s easy for kids to get ringworm because they’re around a lot of other kids, and are likely to touch more things. A daycare worker around the same number of kids can be put at just as much risk.
Anyone with a family member or partner who is infected is also obviously at risk. Additionally, anyone who currently has ringworm elsewhere on the body can easily get it on their scalp as well. If you scratch at the infected area, and then touch your head, it becomes easy for the infection to spread. Avoid scratching and touching yourself if you already have the condition, or it could spread all over the body and become harder to treat.
What Are the Symptoms of the Condition?
Symptoms of ringworm of the scalp are easy to recognize. They include:
- Itchy raised patches on the scalp
- Scaly skin
- Hair that has broken off the scalp
- Gray or red areas
- Patches with small black dots that indicate where hair has fallen out
- Brittle hair
- Swollen lymph nodes
How is Ringworm of the Scalp Diagnosed?
It’s important to get an accurate diagnosis of ringworm. Several other scalp conditions can be mistaken for it if you’re not sure exactly what you’re looking for. You shouldn’t wait until things become too painful or you begin losing large quantities of hair to see a doctor.
The condition is usually diagnosed through a visual exam. A qualified dermatologist will know what to look for right away. In some cases, though, your doctor may want to take a sample of your hair or skin from your scalp. They’ll take a closer look at the sample and send it to a lab for confirmation that fungi are present.
Getting the correct diagnosis can get you on the right track with a treatment option much faster. Seeing a doctor at the first sign of the symptoms listed above can make the entire experience less daunting and easier to overcome.
What are My Treatment Options?
Most of the treatments will directly fight back against the fungus. It’s likely that your doctor will either prescribe an antifungal medication, or a medicated shampoo. We’ll cover both options, as well as some over-the-counter and home remedies you can try at home to stop the fungal infection from growing and spreading.
There are two main types of antifungal medications that are prescribed: Griseofulvin and terbinafine. These are both oral medications, designed to be ingested for about six weeks. They work from the inside out to stop the fungus from growing and spreading.
Possible side effects of griseofulvin include:
- Allergic reactions
Possible side effects of terbinafine include:
- Allergic reaction
- Stomach pains
With any antifungal medication, talk with your doctor about additional risks. You may not be advised to take them if you’re pregnant or have another preexisting condition. Children may be required to take different medications, or different doses. So, if ringworm is spreading throughout your house to your kids, don’t assume they can take the same antifungal medications that have been given to you.
Along with oral medications, your doctor may prescribe a medicated shampoo. They help to prevent growth and spreading of the infection with regular use. Most of the time, the active ingredients in these shampoos are either ketoconazole, or selenium sulfide. With regular use (typically 2-3 times per week), you’ll likely notice that your fungus has stopped spreading, and some of the symptoms may be weakening.
However, using a medicated shampoo alone usually isn’t enough to kill ringworm entirely. An oral supplement is needed to kill the infection from the inside. Shampoos are great for reducing the chances of spreading on your own skin, and other people.
Most of the risks or side effects associated with medicated shampoos have to do with potential allergic reactions. Things like itching of the scalp, redness, or a burning sensation may occur if you’re allergic to one or more of the ingredients listed in the shampoo.
What Are the Best Over-the-Counter Ringworm Shampoos?
If your doctor hasn’t given you a prescription for a medicated shampoo, or you want to try one for yourself to help alleviate the symptoms and spreading of ringworm, you can purchase several varieties over the counter.
These shampoos should have the same active ingredients as their prescription counterparts. Look for shampoos that contain either ketoconazole or selenium sulfide. We’ve listed some of the top over-the-counter shampoos for fungus here.
This is an antibacterial and antifungal formula, designed to inhibit bacterial growth. It combines ingredients such as lemon essential oil, witch hazel, and aloe vera to help reduce the sores and irritation that commonly comes from tinea capitis. It’s properties also help to soothe itching, redness and flaking.
While it doesn’t contain many of the standard active ingredients in prescription medicated shampoos, it’s a great alternative for those who are looking for something more natural that can still provide soothing relief.
Though Nizoral is advertised as an anti-dandruff shampoo, it helps to alleviate some of the more negative symptoms of ringworm. It is fitting that it is considered a dandruff shampoo, since dandruff can be caused by a fungus as well. Containing ketoconazole, Nizoral penetrates the scalp to soothe itching, redness, and scaling.
The ketoconazole in the formula binds to the natural proteins on your scalp and hair, so it doesn’t just ‘wash away’ after each use. Because it holds so strongly, it will keep working, even in between shampoos.
You only have to use Nizoral two times a week to see results. Your symptoms should start to fade, and the growth and spreading of the ringworm should slow down significantly. In between uses, you can use your regular salon shampoo. It makes the Nizoral’s ‘worth’ that much higher – since you’re not using it every day, it will last longer. This gives it more time to fully penetrate and work through the fungal infection.
Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Special Shampoo
Below, we’ll cover some of the benefits of tea tree oil when it comes to fungal infections. Paul Mitchell uses it in this revolutionary shampoo to help soothe your scalp. While it is designed to work on dandruff, it helps to fight fungus and bacteria with each use. It is a salon-quality shampoo that only needs to be applied two to three times a week to see results.
This particular shampoo has many positive reviews and success stories. A shampoo with tea tree oil as an active ingredient is a more natural way to treat ringworm, without having to worry about harsh and sometimes harmful medications that can cause negative side effects.
Natural Ways of Treating Ringworm
While it’s best to contact a doctor for treatment options before trying anything on your own, many people are switching over to natural solutions. Most of are derived from things you may already have in your home. Because they are natural products, these home remedies are typically safe, with few negative side effects.
If the symptoms of ringworm have become too much for you, try using one of these at-home treatment options to help soothe your scalp, and prevent the growth and spreading of the fungal infection.
- Tea tree oil: It has long been known for its healing properties due to its antifungal, antibacterial, and antiseptic solution. To use tea tree oil on your scalp, either look for a shampoo that contains tea tree oil as the active ingredient, or use pure tea tree oil itself. If you use it on its own, it has to be mixed with a neutral carrier, such as olive oil. The antifungal properties in the oil will help to reduce symptoms of tinea capitis and limit fungal growth with regular use. There are almost no side effects.
- Apple cider vinegar: Much like tea tree oil, it has significant antibacterial and antifungal properties. It doesn’t require any diluting to use, as long as it is 100% pure apple cider vinegar. To use, apply apple cider vinegar to the affected area of the scalp with a cotton ball. You can repeat this process several times daily, until the symptoms have begun to subside.
- Papaya: More than just a tasty tropical fruit, papaya contains two helpful enzymes: papain, and chymopapain. These enzymes help to fight against fungal infections. To use papaya for ringworm, you can simply cut up the fruit and rub it directly onto the affected areas of the scalp. Alternatively, you can make a paste from it. Then, you can rub the paste over the infected spots and let them penetrate the scalp for 20-30 minutes before rinsing clean.
Other popular home remedies for ringworm include:
- Coconut Oil
- Lavender Oil
If you’re considering treatment for your tinea capitis, it is a good idea to start with one of these natural solutions. Because side effects are so rare (unless you have an allergic condition), they are much safer than many prescription products. Noticing ringworm symptoms early on is helpful, as it allows you to start a treatment plan that much faster.
However, there are some important things to keep in mind. First, you should always get an official diagnosis from a dermatologist. As stated above, sometimes a skin sample is needed to officially diagnose the condition, so don’t simply assume you may have it, when it could be another scalp condition.
Second, although these home remedies may be safer and more natural than prescription treatment options, they may not work as quickly or effectively. Oftentimes, an oral antifungal medication is needed to get rid of ringworm entirely. These solutions are mainly designed to help alleviate symptoms and prevent the fungus from spreading.
Is It Possible to Fully Recover from Tinea Capitis?
Some scalp conditions, like seborrheic dermatitis or scalp psoriasis, never fully go away. Thankfully, with the right treatment, ringworm is not only manageable, but fully treatable. Unfortunately, the healing process is a slow one that requires patience. The condition isn’t going to go away overnight. In many cases, it can take months to make a full recovery.
If your infection isn’t at least starting to clear after a couple months, you may want to visit your doctor again. They may run another evaluation, or prescribe a different type of antifungal medication. It is possible to get ringworm more than once, and while it isn’t often associated with long-term health effects, some people can experience permanent scarring and bald spots or the loss of hair.
How Can I Prevent Ringworm from Recurring?
Because this type of infection is so contagious, it’s not 100% preventable, no matter how many tips below you put into practice. However, these tips are important. They will help to protect you and those close to you (including children and pets).
- Learn as much as you can about the condition, so you can stay well informed. When you’re well-educated on the subject, it makes it easier to inform others in your life – especially your children. Because children are often at the greatest risk for contracting the condition, if they know not to touch other people’s belongings that have it, you can help to protect them. Inform them about what they should watch out for, as well as things they can do to avoid catching it.
- Practice good hygiene of the scalp regularly. Wash your scalp thoroughly and more often using a good antifungal shampoo, such as Paul Mitchell Tea tree Shampoo. Standard routines of hygiene can help to reduce your risk of spreading the infection to someone else.
- Keep an eye out for animals that may be infected. In pets and other animals, look for patches of skin with missing fur. If you have domesticated pets, get them examined regularly for the condition by your veterinarian.
- Don’t share your personal items, and teach those around you to avoid the same. This includes everything from clothing and hairbrushes, to pillow. Sharing or borrowing these types of items makes it easy to contract the condition.
- Disinfect everything that may have been contaminated. This includes things like hair tools, clothing, and towels. If you’re not able to disinfect them, they must be replaced. It’s fairly easy to contract ringworm again. So, if the proper steps aren’t taken here, the condition could keep recurring.
Will Tinea Capitis Always Respond to Treatment?
The best thing you can do for ringworm is to talk with a doctor first. And, understand that prescription medications are likely going to work the fastest for your scalp. If that type of treatment hasn’t worked for you, your doctor may want you to go through another cycle of it.
Never stop taking a prescribed antifungal medication before the condition is completely gone. Even if it looks as though the symptoms have subsided, fungal infections can come back and grow quickly if they are not fully eliminated. Complete your prescription cycle instead of cutting it short because things look/feel better.
If you’re not getting the results you want from over-the-counter products or natural remedies, it may be time to switch to a stronger solution, like prescription medication and prescription shampoos. Again, always make sure everything you come in contact with is also disinfected and clean. Even when you’re on a treatment solution, it’s important to continuously take preventative measures to avoid the tinea capitis from coming back.
One of the most important preventative measures you can take while on medication is to avoid spreading it elsewhere on your body, and to other people. Antifungal medication isn’t necessarily like an antibiotic. You’re not ‘in the clear’ after a few days of taking it. The fungus has to be completely killed off before you’re not at risk for spreading the infection to others. Take the proper precautions until the condition is completely gone.
Treating a Fungal Infection of the Scalp
There is good news and bad news when it comes to tinea capitis. The good news is that unlike many other scalp conditions, it is fully curable and treatable. It can return, but not because of the same strand of fungus, as long as it’s fully killed. The bad news is that it can be a slow process to treat it in the first place. During that treatment process, symptoms can be painful and embarrassing.
Be aware of possible symptoms, and recognize them as quickly as possible so you can begin a treatment regimen. See a dermatologist right away for an official diagnosis, and start taking an antifungal solution straight away.
Fungi can be difficult to deal with. If an infection is able to spread, it can feel overwhelming and hard to treat. However, by following the steps on how to get rid of and prevent ringworm, you’re giving you and your family/friends the best chance to keep it away from your scalp and out of your life.