At any shelter or vet clinic, ringworm as a diagnosis comes up often. Given that the condition can easily be transmitted to humans, it is not just a matter of animal health, but also important for public health in general. It is more important to understand what it is, how it is transmitted and treated in the Cambodian environment, given the amount of street animals and the proximity of coexistence between street animals and people.
So, what is ringworm? The name of it sounds pretty scary, I would say. Yet, contrary to its name, the ringworm is not a worm nor a parasite. It is “caused by a fungal infection of the skin, and the fungi responsible for the infection are known as dermatophytes”. I often wondered why it has such scary name. According to my research, it gets its name from the distinctive ring-like pattern the red spots that often form on the skin – in the olden days, it used to be thought of as a curled up worm just under the layer of your skin.
Like most fungal infections, ringworm thrives in warm and humid conditions. Animals and humans can be affected with ringworm at any point in their lifetime, although the studies show that those with a compromised immunity, such as babies, elderly and ill humans and animals are more likely to catch the fungus.
Given that the ringworm is zoonosis – meaning it can be transmitted from animals to humans and vice versa – it is important to recognise the first signs of the infection. Generally, in humans, ringworm appears as an itchy, scaly, and reddened skin patch, which quickly becomes bald patches too, if the areas where hair growth is visible. “The infection is highly contagious and from person to person through direct skin contact or via contact with contaminated items such as toilet articles, clothing, and even by contaminated shower or pool surfaces.” It is also curious that ringworm affects nails and claws –in humans the toenails and fingernails become yellowish and brittle. In animals, the claws become brown, brittle and grow longer than usual.
In animals, the symptoms of the infection are similar as those in humans: scaly, itchy and round patches, which will eventually become bold, and appear all over the skin – although it can be concentrated in only one or two places in the animal’s body. According to studies, cats are much more likely to be affected by ringworm than dogs, although dogs also get it frequently. According to Dr. Melissa Stoppler, “Studies have shown that up to 13 percent of human ringworm infections are caused by an organism that commonly causes ringworm in cats. Other studies have shown that in 30 percent to 70 percent of households in which a cat develops ringworm, at least one person will develop the condition. Young children, the elderly, and people whose immune function is compromised for any reason are most susceptible to the infection.”
Ringworm is highly contagious. It is transmitted by direct contact between contaminated clothing, hair brushes, direct human contact and contact with affected animals or the objects, which the infected animal has touched (towels, bedding, grooming tools, carpets, furniture, etc.). Ringworm has a long incubation period and can appear 3-4 weeks after the human or animal has been affected.
Once the human or animal has been infected with ringworm, it is important to seek medical advice – with a medical doctor for humans or veterinary doctor for animals. Luckily, the condition is completely treatable, although it can be rather annoying. Your doctor or vet will assess the severity of the infection and will prescribe the course of treatment. Generally, topical creams are enough, but if the infection is too severe, then oral medication could also be used to treat the fungus. Given that ringworm commonly affects immune-compromised individuals and animals, you may want to seek further tests to rule out any other underlying health problems, which may be weakening your immunity. Likewise, during the treatment of ringworm it is highly advisable to include immunity boosters to both your diet and your animal’s diet to help the body fight the infection.
I cannot stress enough that ringworm is a fungal infection and so cannot be treated by antibiotics. However, animals may irritate the sight of the infection by persistent licking and scratching and thus, a secondary bacterial infection (hot spot!) may set in. It is important not to self-treat the problem and jump to a course of antibiotics “just in case”. Let the vet see how bad is the infection and if it is deemed necessary, your animal might need a course of antibiotics to treat the secondary infection in addition to the fungus treatment.
Prevention is the key. One, it is very important that the animal is kept in a clean environment and the diet is well-balanced to consistently keep the immune system strong. Hygiene is another important factor: if there is an animal or human affected in your household, please ensure that you start the treatment as soon as possible and keep the living area and personal hygiene of your family – human and furry – impeccable. Frequent vacuuming, complete disinfection of animal bedding and grooming tools are vital. Finally, check all family members for any development of the ringworm infection, although often with a strong immune system and good prevention protocol, the immunity will stop severe cross-contamination.
Finally, remember it is not uncommon to get re-infected. If you introduce new animals to your household, observe them carefully for any signs of patchy skin or hair loss. Ringworm, according to many vets is not contagious 48 hours after the topical medications (creams and shampoos) are used to treat it. “However, treatment protocols usually require about one to two weeks of treatment. If treatment is interrupted or nor completed, it is possible to have ringworm re-occur.”
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