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The 10 Most Common Scalp Conditions

Katelyn Brenner FNP

Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Written by Nicholas Gibson

Published 07/17/2021

Updated 07/18/2021

Your hair is one of the most visible parts of your body, so it’s usually easy to spot when you’re experiencing an issue with your scalp. 

And just like other parts of your body, your scalp can become affected by a wide range of skin conditions. 

From itching and inflammation to hair loss, scalp conditions can cause a variety of unpleasant, annoying symptoms. 

Read on to learn about 10 of the most common scalp conditions, along with related symptoms, causes and other characteristics. You’ll also find the most effective treatment options to keep your scalp healthy. 

Seborrheic dermatitis is a chronic form of eczema. It can develop in parts of your body with lots of sebaceous glands (which produce and secrete oil), including your scalp, face and the folds of your skin.

The most common symptom of seborrheic dermatitis is the development of a greasy, flaky rash on the scalp, as well as on certain parts of the face and ears.

The area of skin affected by seborrheic dermatitis might feel itchy. It’s also common for the affected skin to take on a white or yellowish color and break off into flaky dandruff.

Seborrheic dermatitis usually occurs during adulthood or infancy. When it occurs in infants, it’s referred to as cradle cap.

Most of the time, seborrheic dermatitis can be treated using anti-dandruff shampoos available over the counter. These shampoos often contain active ingredients such as coal tar, selenium sulfide, salicylic acid, ketoconazole, zinc and/or resorcinol.

For more severe cases of this common scalp condition, you may need to talk to your healthcare provider and use prescription medication. 

You can learn more in this guide on seborrheic dermatitis and hair loss

Male pattern baldness (MPB), or androgenetic alopecia, is the most common form of hair loss that affects men. It can develop at any point during adult life and can range from a minor receding hairline to full baldness. 

Male pattern baldness is caused by a combination of genetic factors and the effects of a male sex hormone called dihydrotestosterone, or DHT.

There are several different stages of baldness. If you’re genetically predisposed to this form of hair loss, you may notice your hair gradually thinning and falling out over time.

Male pattern baldness is treatable with medication. Currently, the most effective treatments are the prescription medication finasteride (sold under the brand name Propecia®) and the topical, over-the-counter medication minoxidil (Rogaine®).

Check out this guide on male pattern baldness for the steps you can take to prevent hair loss along with ways to treat it.

Contact dermatitis is a form of eczema that can occur when your skin comes into contact with an irritating substance. It can develop anywhere on your body, including your scalp.

The most common symptom of contact dermatitis is a visible rash that may cause your skin to itch, burn or blister.

Many cases of contact dermatitis are caused by irritants such as certain active ingredients in soaps, shampoos, hair dyes and other personal care products. Items containing nickel such as belt buckles or scissors can also cause contact dermatitis.

In other cases, contact dermatitis occurs after contact with allergens such as preservatives or poison ivy.

Contact dermatitis often improves on its own, but when severe, it may be treated using oral or topical corticosteroids.

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Telogen effluvium is a type of temporary hair loss that develops after a triggering event. It usually causes diffuse hair shedding that occurs across your entire scalp.

Unlike male pattern baldness, which is caused exclusively by DHT and genetic factors, telogen effluvium can develop as a result of illness (particularly something that causes fever), stress, surgery, infections, nutritional deficiencies and certain types of medication.

It’s common for telogen effluvium hair loss to begin several months after the specific triggering event.

Although telogen effluvium can be frightening, it isn’t permanent. This form of hair loss usually stops on its own once the underlying cause–such as stress or a certain illness—is diagnosed and effectively treated.

This guide to stress and hair loss goes into more detail about how telogen effluvium develops, as well as the symptoms you might experience. 

Folliculitis is a common scalp condition in which your hair follicles may become infected with a bacteria, scalp fungus or virus.

If you have folliculitis, you may notice small, acne-like lesions on your scalp or in other parts of your body with lots of hair follicles. The lesions may be surrounded by a light red ring and the affected area of your skin may feel itchy and/or painful.

Folliculitis often develops from bacteria in hot tubs and swimming pools. It’s also common for this type of infection to develop from fungal skin infections or common viruses such as herpes simplex.

Certain habits such as wearing tight clothes, having skin rub against itself and touching your skin frequently may increase your risk of developing folliculitis.

Many cases of folliculitis will improve and eventually disappear on their own. However, some may require treatment with antibiotics, antifungals or antiviral medication.

Alopecia areata is a form of autoimmune hair loss that can cause round or oval-shaped bald patches to develop on your scalp, face and/or body.

This type of hair loss occurs when your immune system mistakenly targets and attacks your hair follicles, causing the follicle to shed hair. 

Most of the time, the first sign of alopecia areata is a round or oval-shaped bald patch that forms on the scalp. Over time, alopecia areata may cause a band of hair loss or widespread hair loss that affects your entire scalp.

Alopecia areata is treated in a variety of ways, including through the use of corticosteroids, hair growth medications such as minoxidil, immune system suppressants such as methotrexate and topical medications such as anthralin.

In most cases, the hair loss caused by alopecia areata isn’t permanent, meaning your hair will gradually grow back once the underlying cause is treated. 

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Psoriasis is an autoimmune skin disease that can cause plaques and scale to develop on your skin, including on your scalp.

These plaques develop because of increased cellular growth. Psoriasis causes your skin cells to grow at a faster than normal rate, resulting in a buildup of cells and flaky skin.

Some people with psoriasis experience symptoms such as itching and burning on the affected skin. 

While psoriasis doesn’t cause hair loss, you may notice hair thinning if you scratch or pick at the affected areas of your scalp.

Although there’s no cure for psoriasis, it’s often treatable using medicated shampoos, systemic medications, topical products and options such as phototherapy. 

Tinea capitis, or scalp ringworm, is a type of fungal infection that can develop in your scalp and hair follicles. 

Common symptoms of tinea capitis include a red, itchy and scaly rash that develops across the affected area. The rash may look inflamed around its edges, like other forms of ringworm that can affect the torso and limbs.

Tinea capitis often causes hair shedding. When it causes inflammation, it can damage your hair follicles and may result in scarring alopecia, a form of permanent hair loss. In some cases, the infection may spread from the scalp to the eyebrows and eyelashes.

Most cases of tinea capitis occur in children between three and 14 years of age. However, it’s also possible for this type of fungal infection to affect adults.

If you have tinea capitis, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider. This type of infection can be treated using antifungal medications and, to prevent spread, antifungal shampoos and other topical products. 

This guide to scalp fungus provides more information on how tinea capitis can develop, as well as steps you can take to treat, manage and prevent it.

Head lice—also referred to as nits—are small parasitic insects that can live on your scalp, eyebrows and eyelashes. Although they’re not considered a health hazard, head lice can cause itching, irritability and other annoying symptoms.

Most cases of head lice affect children under 11 years of age. However, it’s also possible for head lice to spread to teens and adults. 

Head lice spread through head-to-head contact, as well as through the use of shared clothing, bedding and other items. 

Head lice can be treated using pediculicides (medications that kill lice), special lice combs and by thoroughly cleaning items that could contain lice eggs such as hats, scarves, towels, pillowcases and clothing.

Lichen planus is a disease that can affect your skin, nails and mouth. It typically causes bumps to develop on your skin featuring a shiny appearance, red-purple coloration and, in some cases, thin white lines called Wickham’s striae.

When lichen planus affects the scalp, it’s referred to as lichen planopilaris. This form of lichen planus can damage your hair follicles and cause you to develop hair thinning or patchy areas of hair loss across your scalp. 

Lichen planus usually develops in middle-aged people. Experts don’t yet know the precise cause, although it is known that certain genes, medications, viruses and metal substances may play a role in the condition.

Although lichen planus isn’t curable, it’s often treated with antihistamines, topical corticosteroids, retinoids and other medications.

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A healthy scalp and healthy hair go hand in hand. By caring for your scalp, you’ll not only keep your skin in great condition—you’ll also help to create the optimal environment for your hair to grow to its full potential. 

If you’ve noticed the signs of one of the scalp conditions listed above, it’s important to reach out to a healthcare provider for personalized assistance.

You can also view a full selection of hair loss treatments online, including products formulated specifically to stop scalp buildup and keep your hair follicles in optimal condition.

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