Ringworm in Babies and Toddlers


You’ve probably heard of ringworm before. The name is actually a misnomer because ringworm has nothing to do with worms. Instead, the name is a reference to the ring-shaped rash caused by a fungal infection. Read on to learn more about what ringworm is, available treatments, and how you can try to prevent your baby or toddler from getting ringworm in the first place.

What Is Ringworm?

Ringworm is a common type of fungal skin infection that is somewhat contagious and can happen to anybody—not just young children. The fungus can spread through people, animals, and contaminated objects. So, for example, the clothing, bed linen, or towel of someone who has ringworm being used by someone else could help spread the infection. You may be more familiar with ringworm than you think, as it’s the same fungal infection that causes jock itch (tinea cruris) and athlete’s foot (tinea pedis). Essentially, when fungus grows on the groin area, it’s called jock itch; when it grows on the feet, it’s called athlete’s foot; and when it grows on any other part of the body, it’s called ringworm. The medical name of a fungal skin infection begins with tinea and is followed by a word referring to the infection's location. For example, tinea capitis means infections of the scalp, and tinea corporis means infections of the body.

How Do Babies and Toddlers Get Ringworm?

Ringworm can be spread to babies and toddlers in three different ways:

  • Contact with someone who is infected

  • Contact with items that have been handled by or used by an infected person, such as combs, towels, clothing, or bedding

  • Contact with a ringworm-infected pet.

What Does Ringworm Look Like on Your Baby or Toddler?

Ringworm causes red, scaly, circular patches with raised edges. As the rash grows, the patches may become smoother in the center. The rash can show up on your child’s scalp or elsewhere on their body. Multiple ring-shaped patches can develop if the infection spreads untreated. Here’s how the rash evolves when symptoms appear, usually 4 to 14 days after the initial infection:

  • Red, scaly patches appear on your baby or toddler’s skin or scalp

  • The patches morph into circular ring shapes once the rash has grown to about half an inch in diameter

  • Typically the rash stops growing when it gets to about one inch in diameter

  • Your baby may have one or many of these patches, which may or may not be itchy and uncomfortable.

Keep in mind that hair may be lost in the affected area, especially if the ringworm rash is on the scalp. In some severe cases, the infection can cause scarring and permanent hair loss. It can be easy to confuse certain types of ringworm with dandruff, eczema, cradle cap, or another skin condition. Cradle cap only occurs in infancy, which means that if your child is over 1 year old, the infection is unlikely to be cradle cap and is more likely to be ringworm or another condition. Your child’s healthcare provider will be able to make a diagnosis if you’re unsure what’s causing the red, scaly patches on your little one’s skin.

Ringworm Treatment for Babies and Toddlers

Your healthcare provider may recommend an over-the-counter cream, such as clotrimazole, tolnaftate, or miconazole, to treat your baby’s ringworm. Typically, this medication has to be applied two to three times a day for at least a week before the ringworm infection begins to clear. Read the instructions on the product label, and consult the pharmacist or your healthcare provider if you have any questions. If the over-the-counter cream doesn’t work, your child’s provider may prescribe a stronger oral antifungal medication. Tinea capitis (ringworm on the scalp) usually needs to be treated by oral antifungal medication, and sometimes a special shampoo may be recommended. Be sure to use the medication as directed and for as long as it’s recommended to ensure your baby’s ringworm clears up entirely.

Other members of the household may also need to get treatment. While the infection is still circulating in your home, be sure that items like combs, hats, and towels aren’t shared to prevent the fungal infection associated with ringworm from spreading (or re-spreading).

How Can Ringworm Be Prevented?

Ringworm can be prevented through simple measures, including:

  • Keeping your baby’s skin clean and dry

  • Avoiding tight-fitting clothing

  • Using clean towels

  • Avoiding the sharing of clothes, towels, combs, brushes, and hats

  • Dressing your baby in fresh, clean clothes every day

  • Ensuring your child’s hands are thoroughly washed after touching or playing with a ringworm-infected pet (patchy hair loss is an indicator your pet may have ringworm, which should be promptly treated by a veterinarian promptly)

  • Treating other family members with ringworm to prevent it from spreading throughout the members of your household

  • Treating other fungal infections, such as athlete’s foot or jock itch, immediately to prevent further spreading.

It may be a good idea to keep your child home from daycare or preschool to prevent spreading ringworm to others. Check with the daycare center or preschool as to what their policy might be regarding an infection like ringworm, or ask your child’s healthcare provider for personalized advice.

The Bottom Line

Ringworm is a completely treatable condition. It’s best to catch it early before it spreads to other parts of your baby’s body or to another member of the family. Over-the-counter medication and/or medication prescribed by your child’s healthcare provider can help eradicate the fungal infection. The key to helping prevent your baby or another family member from getting or spreading ringworm is to ensure articles of clothing, towels, and bed linen aren’t shared and that towels and clothes are washed regularly. If you suspect your pet has ringworm, take it to the veterinarian immediately, and be sure to wash your hands after contact. Ringworm infection can be contained with the proper precautions. With tender love and care combined with effective treatment, your baby or toddler will heal from this infection and have clear skin once again.

How We Wrote This Article The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.

About Christopher B. Peltier

Dr. Chris Peltier is an expert in pediatrics and medical education, and currently practices as a general pediatrician at Pediatric Associates of Mount Carmel, Inc., where he’s served his community for over two decades. Dr. Peltier currently serves as...

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