There are a number of medical conditions that are related to the scalp. Most of these are conditions that result in hair loss or some type of skin rash. Many scalp conditions are hereditary, but some may be caused by malnutrition or an infection. The treatment and outlook depends on the condition causing the scalp problems.
One of the most common types of scalp conditions is one that causes hair loss or damage. This can range from complete loss of hair to easy breakages or small patches of hair loss:
- Male pattern baldness is a type of hair loss that is common in men and is caused by genetics and the male sex hormones.
- Alopecia areata is a chronic autoimmune disorder that causes a patchy type of balding pattern.
- Nutritional deficiencies can cause hair loss. A protein deficiency, which is called kwashiorkor, or an iron deficiency, anemia, could be the cause.
- Hyperthyroidism, which means an overproduction of thyroid hormone 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 is normally caused by genetics, but can also be a result of certain disorders.
There are other conditions that affect the scalp because they are 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 is called dandruff.
- Cradle cap is seborrheic eczema in infants.
- Psoriasis is an inflammatory skin condition that is 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 is 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 is rare and that causes light patches of skin to develop on the body.
- Graft-vs-host disease (GVHD) 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 is spread by sand flies. It can cause skin lesions.
In addition to skin and hair loss conditions, there are some other health problems that affect the scalp:
- Lice are small insects that infest the hair and scalp.
- Head trauma can refer to any accidents that cause skull fractures or cuts to the scalp.
- Temporal arteritis is when arteries that supply the head with blood are inflamed or damaged. It results in a sensitive scalp.
There are many different causes of scalp conditions. For many, the exact causes are unknown, or are multiple and seem to involve genetics. These include autoimmune disorders, male pattern baldness, skin conditions, hormonal disorders, psoriasis, and scleroderma. Others, like ringworm, lice, and leishmaniasis are known to be caused by infections.
The symptoms of scalp conditions depend on the exact condition, but include rashes, hair loss or hair thinning, weak hair and breakages, itchiness, scaly patches, pain and tenderness, as well as other symptoms that are characteristic of particular conditions and not necessarily related to the scalp.
If you suspect you have a condition that is affecting your scalp, your doctor will first want to examine your head, hair, and scalp. Some conditions, such as male pattern baldness, psoriasis, lice, ringworm, or alopecia may be easy to diagnose after a visual examination.
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.
Treatment for scalp conditions varies depending on the diagnosis. There are prescription medications 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 (but not cure) autoimmune disorders and hormone disorders. Celiac disease can be treated by avoiding gluten in the diet.
Infections, like ringworm and lice, can be cured by using medicated ointments and washes that kill the fungus or insect. You can treat seborrheic eczema and cradle cap with medicated shampoos. Neither Ito syndrome nor scleroderma can be cured, but the symptoms can be reduced with medications.
The prognosis for many scalp conditions is good. Although there are no cures for some of them, 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. The infections that cause scalp conditions can be treated and eliminated.