Condition: Fungal infections (tinea capitis)

Tinea capitis, or ringworm, is a contagious fungal infection that affects the scalp causing flaking hair loss and sometimes pus, spots and swellings.

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What is tinea capitis?

Tinea capitis is the medical term for ringworm that's specific to the scalp. It’s a contagious fungal infection that causes a rash that may be circular and the skin can be discoloured compared to the normal skin. It is most common in children and only very rarely affects adults who may have acquired a resistant strain of fungus which can spread from their body to the scalp.

What causes tinea capitis?

Despite its nickname, tinea capitis is not caused by worms. It’s caused by a contagious type of fungi that invades the hair follicle and sometimes the hair shaft.

Tinea capitis can spread through:

  • Skin-to-skin contact with an infected person
  • Petting or grooming an infected animal
  • Touching infected objects such as hairbrushes, towels and bedding

What are the symptoms of tinea capitis?

The main symptom of tinea capitis on the scalp might be itching or pain, and the most common signs are a dry flaky scalp, broken-off hairs and patches of hair loss.

The condition can also cause:

  • Brittle or fragile hair that can easily be broken or pulled out
  • Scaly, swollen, bald patches of skin where hair has broken off
  • Tender or painful areas on the scalp
  • Flaky skin that resembles dandruff
  • Swollen lymph nodes

In more severe cases, symptoms can include pustules, a yellow crust on the scalp and matted hair.

Tinea capitis can usually be diagnosed by close examination of the scalp. In some cases, a scraping of the scalp or some plucked hair will be looked at under a microscope to confirm that a fungal infection is the cause of the condition. These samples may also be tested in a laboratory to determine the type of fungus present so that the correct treatment can be prescribed.

What are the treatment options for tinea capitis?

Topical antifungals available at pharmacies aren’t usually effective in treating tinea capitis. Instead, a prescription oral antifungal medicine will need to be taken every day over a number of weeks. More often than not, hair will start to regrow in any bald patches and the skin will heal without scarring.

How to stop tinea capitis from spreading

If you have tinea capitis, it’s important you try to not pass it on to anyone else.

Things you can do to help prevent the spread of tinea capitis include:

  • Using an antifungal shampoo to remove fungus spores
  • Washing towels and bedsheets more regularly
  • Keeping your skin clean and washing your hands often
  • Avoiding touching or scratching the affected area
  • Washing or disinfecting anything that has come into contact with your scalp, such as combs, hairbrushes, hats, cycle helmets and car headrests