Scalp infections: Causes, symptoms, treatments, and pictures

Bacteria cause some common infections, such as folliculitis and impetigo. Others, such as ringworm, are fungal.

Symptoms vary between infections, though most cause redness, itching, and sometimes pus. Recognizing the differences can help a person get the right treatment. Applying specialized creams or ointments or using a medicated shampoo can usually clear up scalp infections.

In this article, we look at the causes, symptoms, and treatments for some scalp infections.




Scalp folliculitis


Seborrheic dermatitis

Lichen planus


1. Ringworm

Ringworm is a fungal infection that causes a ring-shaped mark on the skin. It can affect any part of the body, including the scalp.

Ringworm that affects the scalp is known as tinea capitis.

Ringworm can cause a scaly, red, bald patch anywhere on the scalp. This can spread across the scalp, producing many separate spots. Ringworm on the scalp is more likely to affect children than adults.

A person can get the infection from another person, an animal, or a damp environment, such as a public pool. To reduce the risk of ringworm, people should not share towels or other personal items with someone who has ringworm.

To reduce the risk of getting ringworm from an animal, a person should wash their hands after contact with pets or other animals. If a person suspects that their pet has ringworm, they can take them to a vet for treatment.


Creams, lotions, and powders will not clear up a ringworm infection on the scalp. A doctor will usually prescribe antifungal tablets to treat ringworm on the scalp. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a person may need to take this medication for 1 to 3 months.

Impetigo is a common skin infection that often affects children. It is a contagious bacterial infection.

Staphylococcus bacteria live on the skin and are mostly harmless, but they can cause an infection if they enter damaged skin.

Another bacterium called Streptococcus can also cause impetigo. This bacteria can spread from person to person by skin contact, touching objects, or sneezing and coughing.

Impetigo most commonly affects the face, particularly the area around the nose and mouth, but it can affect any part of the body where the skin is broken. This includes the scalp. Impetigo can also spread from the original site to other areas of the body.

Impetigo causes red sores on the skin that burst, leaving a yellow-brown crust. It can also cause large, fluid-filled blisters that break open and leave a sore. These sores and blisters often itch and can be painful.

Impetigo is highly contagious. A person can avoid passing on the infection by staying away from school or work, washing their hands often, and covering sores or blisters with a bandage.

Psoriasis is a long-term skin condition caused by a problem with the immune system. According to one estimate, around half of the people who have psoriasis develop it on their scalp. The skin appears thicker in patches, red in color, and may have silver scales.


People can treat psoriasis using topical skin creams, light therapy, and medication taken by mouth. Avoiding psoriasis triggers, such as skin injury, stress, and smoking can help to reduce the symptoms of psoriasis.

Learn more about how to identify and avoid psoriasis triggers here.

7. Lichen planus

Lichen planus is a skin condition that causes shiny, red-purple plaques on the skin. Developing lichen planus on the scalp is rare. However, if it does develop on the scalp, it usually causes:

  • thinning hair in the area
  • redness
  • skin irritation
  • red-purple bumps


It is not clear what causes lichen planus. The condition often goes away without treatment. However, topical creams and antihistamines can relieve uncomfortable symptoms. A doctor may prescribe corticosteroid pills or shots, retinoic acid creams, or light therapy.

8. Scleroderma

Scleroderma is a condition that causes the body to make too much collagen. This makes the skin harder and tighter than usual. It is not yet clear what causes this rare disease, but it may have links to the immune system. The tissue underneath the thicker skin usually disappears, leaving a line on the scalp or face.

Scleroderma that affects the scalp is known by the French term en coup de sabre. This refers to the lines of thicker skin that resemble marks made with a specific type of sword called a saber.


Treatment can include light therapy, medication, or fillers to restore the skin’s original appearance.


Scalp infections can be uncomfortable, but treatment is usually straightforward. Seeing a doctor or dermatologist as soon as symptoms appear can help with a quick diagnosis and treatment.

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