Scalp Sores


Those scalp sores could be the result of a number of skin conditions. See more pictures of skin problems.
©iStockphoto.com/Greg Henry

If you happen to contract a skin disorder at some point, there are chances you'll experience not just one but several side effects. Many different conditions, for instance, can also cause sores on the scalp. Scalp sores can be unsightly, and depending on the cause of the sore, they can also lead to temporary hair loss. These disorders can be contained with the right treatment, but they often need to be diagnosed by a doctor.

Scalp sores can be caused by viral, bacterial or fungal infections. They can also accompany a more serious illness, such as HIV and AIDS [source: American Academy of Dermatology]. Acne and clogged hair shafts can cause scalp sores, too. Sometimes a clogged hair shaft can even lead to a cyst on the scalp, which happens when pus collects underneath the skin. Cysts can be painful and easily infected, so be sure to see your dermatologist if you have one [source: WebMD].

Sometimes age is a factor. Some skin conditions that cause scalp sores, such as ringworm, primarily affect children [source: Berman]. Others, such as pemphigus, primarily affect older adults [source: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases]. On the other hand, scalp sores can be a result of pure bad luck -- an inherited skin disorder, for example, can cause them.

Fortunately, the development of scalp sores can be prevented with proper care. To make sure your scalp is not prone for infection, wash your hair regularly and avoid damp or sweaty skin. Do not share personal care items such as combs and brushes. Be careful if you have a cut or scratch on your scalp, because openings in the skin are a prime target for infection. Also avoid sharing hats or any other type of clothing that might come into contact with your head -- some scalp conditions are easily passed from one person to the next [source: Berman].

To get to the bottom of what's causing scalp sores, read on.

What Causes Scalp Sores

Scalp sores are a symptom of many skin conditions. Your doctor will need to examine the sores in order to determine what their cause might be.

  • Ringworm is a fungal infection of the skin, and it's a common cause of scalp sores. You can recognize it by round patches on your scalp that may be red and swollen. Sometimes these are also accompanied by smaller black dots or a loss of hair in affected areas [source: Berman].
  • Pemphigus, on the other hand, is a disease of the immune system. The condition causes the immune system to attack healthy cells, which results in itchy sores on the scalp and face. Pemphigus is an uncommon condition, but has the potential to be dangerous, uncomfortable and unsightly, so you should see a dermatologist for treatment [source: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases].
  • Psoriasis is another disease of the immune system that can cause scalp sores. Cell turnover is faster than it should be for people with psoriasis. Normally, cell turnover takes about a month, but psoriasis causes this to happen in as little as a few days. Because the skin cells are not mature yet, they pile on top of one another and form itchy sores [source: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases].
  • Impetigo is a bacterial infection that causes scalp sores. The bacteria that lead to impetigo enter the skin through cuts; if you've cut your scalp, be sure to wash the cut with an antibacterial soap [source: MedlinePlus].

Since scalp sores can arise from such a variety of conditions, treatment for scalp sores depends on the cause. For more information about how to treat scalp sores, read on.

Scalp Sore Treatments

To treat scalp sores, you need to treat the skin condition that is causing them. In most cases, a doctor should look at the condition that's causing the scalp sores, and you'll most likely require some kind of medication, either oral, topical or both.

Treating ringworm requires taking antifungal medication for four to 12 weeks. This medication is typically accompanied by an antifungal shampoo [source: WebMD]. Impetigo is also treated with medication -- an antibiotic is necessary to kill off the bacterial infection [source: MedlinePlus].

When scalp sores are caused by a problem with the immune system, treatment can be a bit more difficult. Treating pemphigus requires taking medication either orally or via injection. You may also have to use topical creams on the sores. Medication for pemphigus can have serious side effects, so treatment needs to be monitored by your doctor. Treatment can also take a frustratingly long time -- sometimes as long as several years [source: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases].

Psoriasis patients also need a lot of patience when going through treatment. Everyone responds to psoriasis treatments differently, so your doctor may have to try several methods before finding the one that's right for you. Usually, you'll start off with a topical treatment. If that doesn't work, your doctor will move on to something called phototherapy. Phototherapy is a process that involves exposing affected areas to certain kinds of light in order to slow cell turnover. As a last resort, your doctor will prescribe either oral or injectable medication to improve your immune system [source: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases].

Because treating scalp sores can be complicated, seeing a doctor is important. But there are things you can do at home to reduce your chances of getting a painful, itchy scalp condition. Read the next page to learn more about home remedies and preventions for scalp sores.

Home Remedies for Scalp Sores

Because scalp sores are caused either by bacteria, viruses, fungi or an autoimmune disease, you'll need to seek medical attention in order to treat them. You can do things at home to prevent and contain scalp sores, but you'll need to see a doctor to get rid of them completely.

If you think you've been exposed to the type of fungus that causes ringworm, wash your hair with an antifungal shampoo every day for two weeks. This should prevent the fungus from settling in. You can buy some antifungal shampoos over the counter, so you may be able to avoid a visit to the doctor if no symptoms show up. However, if you know you're already infected with ringworm, antifungal shampoo alone won't clear up the condition. You'll have to make an appointment with your doctor, who can provide the medication you need to take along with the shampoo [source: WebMD].

Keeping your scalp clean is the easiest way to prevent fungal, bacterial or viral infections. You should shampoo immediately after exercising, since this washes away sweat. Clean any cuts on your scalp with an antimicrobial sanitizer. Do not share items that touch your scalp, such as hats, scarves, headbands or other hair accessories. If you follow these general hygienic practices, it's possible to greatly decrease your chance of exposing yourself to many skin conditions and developing scalp sores [source: Berman].

For lots more information on how to identify and treat scalp sores, see the links on the following page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Skin Conditions Related to AIDS." 1997. (Sept. 26, 2009)http://www.aad.org/public/publications/pamphlets/viral_skin.html
  • Berman, Kevin. "Tinea capitis." MedlinePlus Encyclopedia. (Accessed 9/26/2009)http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000878.htm
  • MedlinePlus Encyclopedia. "Triamcinolone Topical." Sept. 1, 2008. (Sept. 27, 2009)http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/a601124.html
  • MedlinePlus Magazine. "Skin Health and Skin Diseases." 2008. (Sept. 26, 2009)http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/magazine/issues/fall08/articles/fall08pg22-25.html
  • National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). "Pemphigus." Dec. 2008. (Sept. 26, 2009)http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Pemphigus/pemphigus_ff.asp#b
  • National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). "Psoriasis." April 2009. (Sept. 26, 2009)http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Psoriasis/default.asp#3
  • WebMD. "Ringworm of the Scalp or Beard -- Medications." March 24, 2009. (Sept. 26, 2009)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/tc/ringworm-of-the-scalp-or-beard-medications
  • WebMD. "Scalp Problems -- Topic Overview." July 3, 2007. (Sept. 26, 2009)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/tc/scalp-problems-topic-overview?