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Scalp problems

Dandruff to head lice are among common problems that can affect the scalp. Learn more about scalp conditions, their causes and treatments.

Dandruff

Anyone who has experienced dandruff knows how embarrassing those little white flakes can be -- especially when they fall on dark clothing. The cause of dandruff (also called seborrhoeic dermatitis when severe) is an excess of dead skin cells shedding from the scalp.

The condition is more likely to occur when the skin is dry or irritated (which is why most people with dandruff see more flakes during the winter months). You might also get dandruff if you don't wash your hair regularly, because oils and skin cells tend to build up on your scalp. Dandruff is more common in people who have skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis, or fungal infections such as malassezia (a type of yeast).

Dandruff isn't a serious problem but it can be itchy and annoying. Though it can't be cured, dandruff is fairly easy to control with a medicated shampoo that contains one or more of these ingredients:

  • Zinc pyrithione
  • Coal tar
  • Salicylic acid 
  • Selenium sulphide
  • Ketoconazole

You may need to try two or three different products until your dandruff clears up. If it doesn't go away after a few weeks of using a dandruff shampoo, see your doctor or talk to your pharmacist because you might have a skin condition that needs treatment.

Cradle cap

Cradle cap, or seborrhoeic dermatitis, is a form of dandruff that affects infants, typically in the first six months. It causes greasy, yellowish scales or crusts to form on the scalp. Although it may look alarming to parents, cradle cap is a very common harmless condition and is not a sign of a more serious infection. It will usually clear up by the time the child is two years old.

Cradle cap does not usually need any special treatment. Gentle washing of the baby’s hair and scalp may prevent a build-up of the scaly crusts. To help soften the scales and loosen the crust, massage a small amount of baby oil or olive oil into the scalp at night. In the morning, a soft baby brush or cloth can be used gently to remove any loose particles and the baby’s hair can then be washed with a baby shampoo.

If this has no effect, a mild shampoo can be used, taking care to avoid the baby’s eyes. If the cradle cap becomes inflamed or infected, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or an antifungal cream or shampoo, such as ketoconazole. A mild steroid cream (eg hydrocortisone) may be recommended for any rash that is inflamed. Your health visitor, GP or pharmacist can advise.

Head Lice

Head lice are common in schoolchildren between the ages of four and 11, but can also be passed on to adults. The lice are tiny grey-brown, wingless insects about the size of a pinhead that live by sucking blood from the scalp. The females lay their eggs, which look like tiny white specks on the hair shaft close to the scalp. The eggs hatch after seven to 10 days. 10 to 14 days after hatching, the lice are mature and about 2-4mm long (the size of a sesame seed). Once mature they reproduce at a very fast rate, unless they are treated.

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