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Scalp Fungus: Causes & Treatments

Katelyn Hagerty FNP

Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 2/24/2021

From your scalp to your feet, groin and other parts of your body, fungal infections are an itchy, irritating annoyance that can cause a variety of symptoms. 

Scalp fungus, also known as scalp ringworm or tinea capitis, is a common fungal infection that develops on your scalp and in your hair shafts. Like other fungal infections, it’s contagious and often develops in young children.

You may notice a variety of symptoms if you develop a scalp fungal infection, including itching, redness, scaly skin and even hair loss. 

Although scalp fungus can be annoying, it’s almost always treatable. It’s important to take action quickly if you develop a fungal infection on your scalp to prevent it from spreading to other areas of your body and become more severe.

Below, we’ve explained what scalp fungus is and the factors that cause it to develop. We’ve also explained the effects scalp fungal infections can have on your hair, as well as the most effective options for treating and preventing this type of fungal infection. 

What Is Scalp Fungus?

Scalp fungus, or tinea capitis, is a type of fungal infection that affects your skin and hair. As with other common fungal infections, it develops when a specific type of fungus starts to grow on the outermost layer of your skin.

A similar type of infection called tinea barbae, which develops on your face, chin and neck, can affect your beard area.

Scalp fungus is often referred to as scalp ringworm. Despite its name, there’s no worm involved -- instead, this type of infection is caused entirely by contagious fungi. 

According to the CDC, about 40 different species of fungi may cause tinea infections that affect your scalp, groin, feet and other parts of your body. Scalp fungal infections are often caused by the microsporum and trichophyton fungal genera.

Scalp fungus can cause a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Dry, scaly areas of skin

  • Redness

  • Itching

  • Dandruff

  • Hair loss

The severity of these symptoms can vary depending on a number of factors. Sometimes, scalp fungus causes gray, scaly patches of skin to develop across your scalp with a small amount of noticeable hair loss.

In more severe cases, a scalp fungal infection can cause inflammation, lesions and secondary infection with bacteria.

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What Causes Scalp Fungus?

Like other fungal infections, scalp fungus develops when contagious fungi are transmitted onto your scalp and hair from other people, animals or objects. 

Fungi can be found in almost every environment. When you come into contact with a fungus, it can spread onto your skin, causing an infection to develop. Often, it only takes a moment for a fungus to make its way onto your body and start growing. 

Common sources of this type of fungal infection include:

  • People. It’s possible to develop scalp fungus after contact with other people with fungal infections. The fungi that cause this type of infection can spread onto your hands from other people, then move to your head when you touch your scalp or hair.

  • Animals. Ringworm infections are common in animals, including dogs, cats and many farm animals. Many fungal infections are especially common in younger animals, such as puppies and kittens.

  • Shared items. Items that are shared with other people, such as towels, clothing, combs, hairbrushes and other personal care products, can spread fungal infections.

  • The environment. Certain areas, such as damp surfaces in communal locker rooms or showers, are breeding grounds for the fungi that cause scalp ringworm and many other fungal infections.

Although scalp ringworm can affect anyone, it’s most common in children and people with weak immune systems. Like other fungal infections, scalp fungus tends to spread more often during the warmer periods of the year.

Scalp Fungus and Hair Loss

Scalp fungal infections often cause hair loss. If you have a fungal infection on your scalp, you may experience patchy hair loss, with small, round bald patches forming in certain parts of your scalp.

You may notice that the hair in affected areas of your scalp becomes brittle and breaks off from its roots easily. In some cases, scalp fungus can cause patches of small black dots to develop as strands of hair literally break off at your scalp. 

It’s important to understand that hair loss caused by a fungal infection is very different from the hair loss caused by male pattern baldness. Although fungal infections can cause hair loss, they don’t have any effect on DHT or other hormones. 

Although most of the hair loss associated with scalp fungus is temporary, scalp fungal infections that cause inflammation (often referred to as kerion) can cause scar tissue to develop. This may lead to a type of permanent hair loss called scarring alopecia.

Because of the risk of permanent hair loss, it’s important to take action quickly if you notice any of the symptoms of a scalp fungal infection. 

How to Treat Scalp Fungus

If you have scalp fungus or a fungal infection elsewhere on your body, it’s important to talk to a healthcare provider.

The earlier you take action to treat scalp fungus, the more likely you are to remove the infection without suffering from significant hair loss. Acting fast also lowers the risk of the fungal infection spreading to other parts of your body or to other people. 

Scalp fungus is treatable using antifungal medications. One of the most common medications used to treat fungal infections of the scalp is griseofulvin, an oral antifungal. You may need to use griseofulvin or another medication for four to eight weeks to properly treat the infection.

Other medications used to treat scalp fungus include itraconazole, fluconazole and others. If you have inflammation or scalp lesions, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication to control these symptoms and prevent the inflammation from getting worse.

Since topical antifungal medications can’t penetrate the hair shaft, they typically aren’t used to treat scalp fungus. However, your healthcare provider may recommend using a topical cream if you also show symptoms of fungal infection elsewhere on your body. 

It’s important to continue using your medication for the entire treatment period even if your skin and hair improves relatively early. Stopping treatment early may increase your risk of recurring fungal infections. 

Preventing Scalp Fungus

Once you’ve treated scalp fungus, it’s important to prevent the infection from coming back. Use the following tips to reduce your risk of developing scalp fungus or spreading it to others:

  • Wash your hair regularly. It’s important to keep your hair and scalp clean. Try to wash your hair regularly. Your healthcare provider may recommend using antifungal shampoo to prevent reinfection.

  • Keep your hair and skin clean and dry. Fungal infections tend to thrive in moist, dirty environments. After you wash your hair, dry your scalp thoroughly to prevent fungi from spreading and multiplying.

  • Avoid sharing clothes or personal care items. Avoid sharing towels, clothing, combs or other personal care items with other people. Because these come into contact with your skin, then can easily spread fungal infections.

  • Replace your hairbrush and/or comb. The fungi that cause infections can survive on combs, brushes and other products for some time, making it possible to reintroduce the infection after treatment if you reuse these items.

    When you start treatment for scalp fungus, throw away your old comb or hairbrush. It’s best to replace these items to avoid creating any risk of recurrent infections.

  • Use hot water to wash your clothes, towels and bedsheets. Make sure to wash all of these items thoroughly to kill fungi and reduce your risk of spreading the fungal infection to your partner.

  • Take precaution in locker rooms and public showers. Fungal infections often spread in these areas. Be careful not to touch damp or dirty surfaces, then touch your scalp or hair.

    Other fungal infections, such as athlete’s foot, can spread around your body. Make sure to protect yourself by wearing sandals or flip-flops whenever you use a public shower or locker room.

  • If you have a pet, take it to the vet. Scalp fungus and other fungal infections are often spread through pets. Even if your pet doesn’t show any signs of infection, it’s important to take it to the vet to have it checked for infectious fungi.

  • Wash your hands with soap and water after touching animals. Make sure to wash your hands thoroughly after touching dogs, cats and other animals. This also protects you from bacteria and other non-fungal pathogens. 

In Conclusion

Scalp fungus is a common problem that can affect people of all ages and backgrounds. While it doesn’t cause male pattern baldness, it can affect your hair follicles and cause you to shed hair in certain areas of your scalp.

When a scalp fungal infection causes inflammation, it can even lead to a form of permanent hair loss called scarring alopecia.

If you have scalp fungus, talk to a healthcare provider. They’ll prescribe you medication to treat the infection, manage any inflammation and prevent the fungus from coming back. 

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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