Reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Itchy and irritating aren’t exactly words you want associated with your scalp. But sometimes, that’s exactly how it feels.
An itchy scalp can be the result of a fungal infection called tinea capitis (also called scalp ringworm). This common fungal infection develops on your scalp and in your hair follicles — namely, the hair shaft.
Thankfully, it’s very treatable — you just want to get to it quickly so it doesn’t spread.
Keep reading for more information on what causes this scalp infection, common symptoms and what the treatment of tinea capitis looks like.
As mentioned above, tinea capitis is a type of fungal infection stemming from a type of dermatophyte (fungi) that affects your scalp and hair follicles. It starts on the outermost layer of your skin, called the stratum corneum.
Even though tinea capitis is also known as ringworm on head, it doesn’t actually have anything to do with a worm.
Tinea capitis is a contagious infection. Translation: You catch it when you come in contact with contagious fungi and it is transferred to your scalp and hair.
One thing to know: It’s most common in children and people with weakened immune systems.
The most common ways to come in contact with this contagious fungi is through:
If you are in contact with someone who has tinea capitis, you may get it from them. The contagious fungi can spread onto your hands, and then when you touch your scalp it can be transferred again. In addition, you can pick it up from sharing items like clothes and hair brushes.
Dogs, cats and many farm animals can all get this type of ringworm. It’s particularly common in young animals.
The Environment: Damp surfaces in communal areas (think locker room showers) can be breeding grounds for this infectious fungi.
So, how do you know if you’ve got scalp ringworm? Honestly, it’s pretty hard to miss. Ringworm on the scalp tends to present as a circular bald spot that is scaly, itchy and red, or maybe just a black dot.
Generally, signs of infection appear between four to 14 days after coming in contact with the fungi that causes scalp ringworm.
Hair loss is another common side effect of scalp ringworm. If you contract it, you may notice patches of hair loss. This happens because the fungus also attacks the hair shaft, which causes the infected hairs to fall out.
The infected hairs may also become brittle, leading to broken hairs at the root.
The good news: baldness caused by an infection is usually temporary. However, it’s important to know this infection can cause scalp inflammation, and that inflammation can cause scar tissue to develop. This could lead to a type of permanent hair loss called scarring alopecia.
This risk of permanent alopecia or hair loss is another reason why taking quick action after diagnosis is so important.
It’s also worth noting that scalp ringworm is frequently misidentified as another scalp issue called seborrheic dermatitis. While these two conditions can appear similarly, seborrheic dermatitis can’t result in hair loss, which is a telltale way to differentiate between the two.
If you suspect you have ringworm on head, talk to a healthcare provider as soon as possible about treatments.
If you are given a diagnosis of tinea capitis, you’ll likely be prescribed an antifungal medication. Griseofulvin is an oral medication often used to treat this condition.
Other antifungal therapy and medications used to treat the infection include itraconazole, fluconazole and terbinafine, among others.
If you have inflammation, you may also be given something to deal with that.
There are also scalp fungus treatments that come in topical formulas, but they tend not to work as well with this type of ringworm.
Using your medication as prescribed for as long as you’re supposed to is crucial. Even if it starts to get better, you should finish out your medication completely.
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If you’ve had ringworm in hair, you definitely don’t want to get it again. Thankfully, there are some preventative actions you can take to reduce the spread of infection. Check them out:
Wash your hair regularly.
Keep your hair and skin clean and dry.
When in a locker room, avoid touching surfaces and then touching your scalp.
Don’t share combs, towels or clothes.
If you’ve had an infection, replace your brush and wash your clothes, towels and bedsheets in hot water.
As a reminder, you can get scalp ringworm from infected animals. So, if your pet has had it, you’ll need to take precautions to ensure you don’t get it.
Or, if you’ve had it, take your pet to the vet. Even if they’re not showing signs, they could have it and pass it back to you.
It’s also a good idea to get in the practice of washing your hands after petting animals — just in case.
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When it comes to fungal skin infections, scalp ringworm is fairly common. While it’s most common in school-age children and immunocompromised individuals, anyone can get it — including pets.
This type of infection can lead to hair loss and bald spots, which is one of the many reasons it’s so important to seek treatments for tinea capitis quickly.
If you notice signs you may have it or have come into direct contact with someone who was diagnosed with it, make an appointment with a healthcare professional immediately.
Also keep in mind that a diagnosis of tinea capitis isn’t anything to worry about. There are plenty of antifungal therapies and medications available to take care of it.
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Dr. Vicky Davis is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 20 years of experience in clinical practice, leadership and education.
Dr. Davis' expertise include direct patient care and many years working in clinical research to bring evidence-based care to patients and their families.
She is also an active member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.