The Worm that isn’t a Worm at All: the Ringworm

When my daughter still attended elementary school, she came home one day with a note from the teacher that as parents we should be aware that cases of head lice had been noticed at school. All parents were therefore advised to check their children’s hair and if the insects or their nits attached to hair shafts were present to take steps to eradicate them. Unsurprisingly, we found that my daughter had also been infected, which led their two slightly older brothers to tease and avoid her, with one of them taunting her with “you are contaminated” (a word he must have learned recently). However, that very boy sometime later developed a ringworm infection on his scalp and then it was I, who avoided play fights with him and warned his siblings not to get too close to him or share his towel or pillow or cap. The term “ringworm” didn’t sound too nice and they all wanted to see what it looked like. But when I could not show them anything more than an oval or circular reddish and coin-sized patch on the skin of their brother’s neck, they were disappointed and lost interest.

So, what is this “ringworm” all about? Signs that a person is infected by the ringworm condition are the roundish patch mentioned above with a slightly raised edge and the fact that it itches badly. Doctors will diagnose this as something they call “tinea” or “dermatophytosis”; a complaint, in other words, caused by a skin fungus that in humans goes by the name Trichophyton schoenleini or T. rubrum in tropical regions. These species of fungi feed on the horny protein, known as keratin, which the outer layer of the skin, but also hair and fingernails consist of. These fungi belong to a fungal division known as Ascomycota (formerly termed Ascomycetes) , a grouping of species that also contains the important baker’s and brewer’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the edible and expensive morels and truffels and some feared (and annoying) filamentous fungi inside the lungs.

Ringworm species that can colonize the human skin can be found in the form of dormant spores in the soil, but they may also reach human hosts from wild as well as domestic animals. Animals usually have their own species like Trichophytum verrucosum in the case of cattle or T. equinum in the case of horses and Microsporum canis in connection with dogs. The ringworm fungi cause these animals to feel itchy, but the fungi can also infect humans and humans can infect animals. What all these ringworm fungi have in common is that they love moist and warm skin and knowing that, one way to beat them is to dry the infected areas thoroughly after bathing or sweating. Of course it is also important to change clothes regularly like scarves, hats, socks, etc. that would have been in contact with the infected areas, and to avoid sharing combs and hair brushes with others and to change pillow covers and bed sheets frequently. Additionally, some anti-fungal creams and lotions should be applied to the infected areas. Certain lotions like oregano and lemongrass oils may help as well. If untreated the ringworm patches may develop into bald and permanently hairless areas.

There are, of course, other skin conditions that itch, produce reddish patches, lead to flaky skins and are irritating, but need not be caused by a ringworm fungus at all. Often going under the general name “eczema”, the autoimmune disease psoriasis is sometimes mistaken for ringworm. However, psoriasis is not contagious. It is caused by white blood cells known as T-cells that erroneously turn against the body and attack the skin when the latter has been injured by a chemical irritant, insect bite, sunburn, certain weather conditions or when a person has been under severe psychological or physical stress. In the case of my son (see above), his ringworm condition was a just punishment for having been mean to his sister when she suffered from head lice. But in terms of stress, it was mostly us parents who suffered during the time we had to worry about head lice and ringworms.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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