Conditions that can affect your scalp include psoriasis, ringworm, lice, and lupus. Most are not contagious. Treatment depends on the cause and may include shampoos, ointments, or medications.
Scabs and sores on the scalp can be itchy and unpleasant. Scratching generally makes them worse and increases your chances of infection.
In many cases, scabs and sores on the scalp clear up on their own or with over-the-counter (OTC) treatments.
Most of the time, they don’t indicate serious illness. If you can’t identify the cause of your scabs and sores, or if they’re spreading or appear infected, talk with a doctor or other healthcare professional.
Read about some of the most common causes of scalp conditions, including dandruff, lice, and more.
Contact dermatitis is an allergic reaction to something you’ve touched.
Certain materials, such as latex, can also lead to a reaction. So can outdoor foliage, like poison ivy or poison oak. You may have a bad reaction if toxic substances, such as battery acid or bleach, touch your scalp.
An allergic reaction can cause your scalp to develop dry patches that itch or burn. If you scratch them, bleeding and scabbing can occur.
Contact dermatitis is not contagious.
Your scalp should clear up on its own, but talk with a doctor if the area:
- appears infected
- is getting more painful
- is spreading
Be very careful to avoid coming into contact with the irritant again. Allergic reactions can grow stronger with multiple exposures.
Your scalp becomes irritated, red, and scaly. Thick scabs can become itchy and very uncomfortable. Crusty patches of skin are usually white or yellow and can attach to the hair shaft.
Newborn babies can have dandruff in a condition known as crib cap.
The inflammation of seborrheic dermatitis can cause it to spread to your face, neck, and behind the ears. In severe cases, it can also spread to the rest of your body.
The condition is not contagious, and the cause isn’t known. But it’s not usually a sign of poor health and has nothing to do with cleanliness. You can shampoo your hair every day and still have dandruff.
It can take a long time to get dandruff under control. In some cases, it may become a lifelong condition that comes and goes.
You can buy OTC medicated shampoos and topical ointments designed to treat dandruff. There are many available options for medicated dandruff shampoos.
Some ingredients to look for when selecting a shampoo are:
You may need to try a few types of medicated shampoo to find the one that effectively controls your dandruff.
If OTC medicated shampoos don’t help, you can also try a prescription shampoo, such as one containing ketoconazole.
This drug can have side effects, such as:
- changes in hair texture
Always be sure to follow package directions carefully. Report any problems to a doctor or pharmacist for help.
Psoriasis is a noncontagious skin condition that can affect various parts of your body. It can cause thick, silver-gray scabs on white skin or dark patches with gray scales on brown or black skin, all over the scalp.
Around half of all people with psoriasis have scalp psoriasis, estimates the Psoriasis and Psoriatic Arthritis Alliance.
Mild cases often benefit from medicated shampoo designed to treat the scalp and ease itching. Ingredients to look for in OTC medicated shampoos include salicylic acid and tar.
If that doesn’t help, or your condition worsens, consult a clinician. Severe cases may need topical or injectable steroids.
If swollen lymph nodes occur alongside scalp scabs, antimicrobial treatment may be necessary.
Ringworm is most likely to involve children. It’s quite contagious.
Creams and lotions don’t work for treating ringworm on the scalp. Instead, oral antifungal medications are needed for 1–3 months. Examples include griseofulvin (Gris-PEG) and terbinafine (Lamisil).
A clinician may also recommend using a medicated shampoo, such as one containing selenium sulfide, during your treatment period.
Untreated ringworm can lead to:
- extreme inflammation
- hair loss that may be permanent
If you have head lice, you’ll probably feel something moving on your scalp. Your scalp may itch too. If you scratch too much, scabs can develop on your scalp. This can lead to infection.
Head lice can be very contagious. If someone in your household has head lice, everyone who has been in close physical contact with them need to get checked.
OTC medications can treat head lice.
They don’t live long once they fall off or are removed. They generally survive fewer than 2 days when they can’t feed.
Make sure to wash any bedding, clothing, and furniture the person with lice used during the 2 days before treatment.
Use hot water for laundry and dry in high heat. Other items can be dry-cleaned.
For items you can’t wash, closing them up in a plastic bag for 2 weeks will take care of adult lice and their offspring.
Lichen planus causes red or purple bumps on the skin. When it affects the scalp, it’s called lichen planopilaris.
It can lead to hair loss, also known as alopecia, or permanent scarring. The hair loss caused by lichen planopilaris is typically permanent.
Anyone can develop lichen planus, but it’s more likely to occur in middle age. It’s not contagious.
A healthcare professional might be able to diagnose it by its appearance. A skin biopsy can confirm the diagnosis. Most of the time, there’s no known cause.
Lichen planopilaris sometimes clears up on its own, but it can persist for years.
Shingles mainly affects the skin of the body, but scabs can form on the scalp as well.
Symptoms can continue for months.
Treatment may involve:
- antiviral medication
- pain medication
- topical ointments
This type of scalp scab can spread and recur.
Various medicated shampoos, creams, and oral medications may help control infection and ease symptoms.
Anyone who has HIV and develops skin or scalp scabs should consult their clinician.
Dermatitis herpetiformis causes groups of red, intensely itchy bumps. Typically, a burning sensation is felt before the bumps appear.
While the bumps scab over and heal in a week or two, new bumps can continue to form.
The prescription medication dapsone (Aczone) may relieve symptoms. However, following a strict gluten-free diet is the only effective way to treat the underlying disease.
Lupus is chronic and noncontagious. Most people with lupus notice the disease affects their skin, notes the Lupus Foundation of America.
Lesions or rashes may appear in areas commonly exposed to the sun, such as the head, face, and neck. If lesions occur on the scalp, hair loss and scarring can occur.
Treatment of lupus-related skin conditions can include corticosteroid creams or calcineurin inhibitors.
A doctor may prescribe medications, such as dapsone (Aczone), for more moderate cases.
Skin cancer most commonly develops in areas frequently exposed to the sun, such as the:
There are several types of skin cancer. None of them are contagious.
- sores that don’t heal
- patches that are raised or scaly
- spots that change in color, size, or shape
A clinician can perform a skin exam and take a biopsy of the affected area to diagnose your condition.
Treatment for skin cancer depends on the type of skin cancer, the stage of the cancer, and your overall health.
Some home and alternative remedies may provide relief from the pain of scabs and sores.
Tea tree oil
This natural oil can be found as a stand-alone product or as a component of shampoos. However, it may cause an allergic reaction in some people.
Aloe vera gel
You can get this gel directly from a cut leaf of an aloe vera plant or as an OTC product. To use, apply the aloe vera gel directly to the affected area of your scalp.
Studies have found that aloe vera gel may be effective for psoriasis.
Fish oil or omega-3 supplements
Other helpful tips
Be sure to regularly clean your hair and scalp if you have scalp scabs.
Here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Try to shampoo each day or every other day until your symptoms subside.
- If you’re using an OTC medicated shampoo, always follow the instructions on the packaging. Be sure to leave the shampoo on for the recommended time so the active ingredients can get to work.
- Shampoos containing tar could discolor light hair. If you have light-colored hair, you may want to try other products first.
- While you’re treating your scalp scabs, try to avoid any beauty or styling products that could irritate your condition.
How do I get rid of crusty scabs on my scalp?
With such a range of causes for scalp scabs and itchiness, it’s important to understand the source of your scalp problem as soon as possible.
If you’ve tried OTC medicated shampoos or home remedies for several weeks and are still experiencing symptoms, consult a healthcare professional.
They may be able to diagnose your condition with a simple examination of your scalp. They may also scrape off skin cells or take a biopsy to help them make a diagnosis.
What are crusty scabs on the scalp?
Scabs on your head can signal a number of skin issues, most of them not likely to be dangerous.
To understand what’s causing the sores or scabs, especially if they become worse or show signs of infection, you should consult with a healthcare provider.
What does scalp psoriasis look like?
Scalp psoriasis causes plaques of thick, silvery-gray scabs on your scalp. People with lighter skin tones typically get light pink to red plaques with an overlying, silvery-gray scale, whereas people with darker skin tones will get plaques that appear purple or darker than their skin tone with an overlying gray scale.
Various conditions may affect the scalp, such as psoriasis, ringworm, lice, and lupus. Most of these are not contagious. The treatment depends on the cause and could consist of special shampoos, creams, or medications.
The earlier you receive a diagnosis, the sooner you can get relief. You can book an appointment with a primary care doctor in your area using our Healthline FindCare tool.