Diseases & Conditions A - Z
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Scalp Conditions

Most scalp conditions lead to hair loss or some type of skin rash. Many scalp conditions are hereditary. Malnutrition or infection can also cause scalp conditions. The treatment and your outlook depend on the condition causing the scalp problems.

Types of scalp conditions

Conditions that cause hair loss

One of the most common types of scalp conditions is one that causes hair loss or damage. This can range from a complete loss of hair to easy breakages or small patches of hair loss:

  • Male pattern baldness is common in men and occurs due to genetics and male sex hormones.
  • Alopecia areata is a chronic autoimmune disorder that causes a patchy balding pattern.
  • Nutritional deficiencies can cause hair loss. A protein deficiency, or iron-deficiency anemia, could be the cause.
  • Hyperthyroidism is an overproduction of thyroid hormone that can cause hair loss.
  • Hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid, can also cause hair loss.
  • Hypopituitarism, or an underactive pituitary gland, can cause hair loss.
  • Lichen planus is a skin condition that can cause hair loss, as well as discoloration of the scalp.
  • Celiac disease is an allergy to gluten and can cause hair loss.
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus is an autoimmune disorder that can cause hair loss.
  • Trichorrhexis nodosa occurs when hair shafts have weaknesses and break easily. It normally occurs due to genetics, but it can also be the result of certain disorders.
  • Some women notice hair loss after giving birth, which is due to the drop in hormones like estrogen. Hair growth returns within a few months.
  • Stress can lead to hair loss.
  • Certain medications, such as birth control pills, blood thinners, and some of the ones that treat arthritis, depression, gout, heart conditions, and high blood pressure can lead to hair loss.
  • Chemicals and tools people use for styling hair can lead to hair loss and cause damage to your scalp.
  • Some people experience temporary hair loss after an extreme weight loss of 15 pounds or more.
  • Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimiacan lead to hair loss.

Skin conditions

Other conditions affect the scalp because they’re skin conditions or they cause skin rashes:

  • Seborrheic eczema, or dermatitis, is a common inflammatory skin condition that causes flaky, scaly patches on the skin, especially the scalp. When those flakes fall off, it’s called dandruff.
  • Cradle cap is seborrheic eczema in infants.
  • Psoriasis is an inflammatory skin condition that’s not uncommon. In many cases, the scalp is affected and develops red, scaly, dry patches.
  • Ringworm, or tinea capitis, is a fungal skin infection that produces ring-like patches. It’s common in children.
  • Scleroderma is a rare disease of the skin and connective tissue. It causes skin to develop patches that are tight and hard.
  • Ito syndrome, or incontinentia pigmenti achromians, is a birth defect that’s rare and that causes light patches of skin to develop on the body.
  • Graft-versus-host disease is a potential complication after having a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. A skin rash may form when the host rejects the transplanted tissue.
  • Leishmaniasis is a tropical parasite that sand flies spread. It can cause skin lesions.

Other health problems

Other health problems that affect the scalp include the following:

  • Lice are small insects that infest the hair and scalp.
  • Head trauma can refer to any accident that causes skull fractures or cuts on the scalp.
  • Temporal arteritis occurs when arteries that supply the head with blood are inflamed or damaged. It results in a sensitive scalp.

Causes of scalp conditions

Scalp conditions have many different causes. For many, the exact causes are unknown or are multiple and seem to involve genetics. These conditions include:

  • autoimmune disorders
  • male pattern baldness
  • skin conditions
  • hormonal disorders
  • psoriasis
  • scleroderma

Others scalp conditions, like ringworm, lice, and leishmaniasis are known to be caused by infections.

Symptoms of scalp conditions

The symptoms of scalp conditions depend on the exact condition, but they include:

  • rashes
  • hair loss or hair thinning
  • weak hair and breakages
  • itchiness
  • scaly patches
  • pain
  • tenderness

You may experience other symptoms that are characteristic of particular conditions and not necessarily related to the scalp.

Diagnosis of scalp conditions

If you suspect you have a condition that’s affecting your scalp, your doctor will first want to examine your head, hair, and scalp. Some conditions may be easy to diagnose after a visual examination, such as:

  • male pattern baldness
  • psoriasis
  • lice
  • ringworm
  • alopecia

For other conditions, your doctor or a specialist may need to run other tests. You may need to have a sample of blood drawn, for instance, to test for hormone levels and to determine if a thyroid or pituitary problem is to blame, or to detect a nutritional deficiency.

Treatments for scalp conditions

Treatment for scalp conditions varies depending on the diagnosis. Prescription medications are available to help treat hair loss. Surgical implants of hair transplants are also possible. In some cases, the underlying cause of hair loss can be treated. Supplements or dietary changes can correct nutritional deficiencies. Medications can treat autoimmune disorders and hormone disorders. You can treat celiac disease by avoiding gluten in your diet.

Medicated ointments and washes that kill the fungus or insect can cure certain infections, such as ringworm and lice. You can treat seborrheic eczema and cradle cap with medicated shampoos. Neither Ito syndrome nor scleroderma is curable, but you can reduce the symptoms with medications.

Outlook for people with scalp conditions

The outlook for many people with scalp conditions is good. Although some scalp conditions aren’t treatable, treatment can successfully control symptoms. Medications that slow or regrow hair are somewhat successful, but wigs are always an option when they don’t work. You can get treatment for and eliminate the scalp conditions that occur due to infections.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Mary Ellen Ellis
Medically reviewed on: Jun 17, 2016: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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