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If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Bumps on the scalp can be caused by a number of things, from infections to various skin conditions. And, for many, they’re typically easy to treat and clear up quickly.
In order to figure out what treatment you need for your scalp discomfort, you first need to get to the bottom of what’s causing these bumps. Read on to learn about the most common scalp conditions that cause bumps on your head, including how to get rid of them.
What causes bumps on the scalp?
Bumps can develop on the scalp for many reasons, including skin conditions, infections, fungus, and allergies. Most of these causes are harmless and require minimal to no treatment. However, some conditions require expert guidance from a medical professional.
Folliculitis is a common skin infection that causes small pimple-like bumps to form in hair follicles on the body and scalp. It’s usually the result of a fungal or bacterial infection, such as the staph aureus bacteria. However, it can also be triggered by physical irritation, hot tubs, shaving or plucking, and certain medications (Winters, 2022).
While uncomfortable, folliculitis isn’t contagious and should go away on its own.
If your folliculitis doesn’t improve on its own within a few days, a dermatologist may prescribe antibiotics to help clear the rash. In the meantime, you can try warm compresses several times a day to help soothe your skin.
If you’re prone to folliculitis, there are a few things you can do to prevent it from coming back. These include (AAD, n.d.):
- Avoiding wearing tight clothing that rubs against your skin
- Wearing breathable fabrics
- Changing clothes following exercise
- Using proper technique when shaving
- Applying topical medications in the direction your hair grows
Body acne: causes, treatments, how to get rid of it
Similar to acne on the face, scalp acne can cause small bumps or pimples to form on the scalp. It’s often the result of excess oil and dead skin cells clogging the pores. A variety of factors can cause this, including genetics, diet, hormones, and stress. While unpleasant, scalp acne isn’t usually a serious condition.
Several over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription products effectively treat scalp acne. A dermatologist can help you choose the right product for your individual needs. The most common topical treatments include retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, and antibiotics (Ogé, 2019).
Also called atopic dermatitis, eczema is a common inflammatory skin condition that affects people of all ages. It can cause the skin to become dry, red, and itchy. Sometimes, it also leads to small bumps on the skin—including the scalp. Researchers have yet to pinpoint the exact causes of eczema, but it’s thought to result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors (Nemeth, 2021).
People with eczema often have certain triggers that make their symptoms worse. These include stress, allergies, weather changes, and irritants like fragrances or detergents. While there isn’t a cure, there are ways to manage the condition and reduce symptoms (Nemeth, 2021).
Eczema treatment typically involves a combination of moisturizers, anti-itch creams, and corticosteroid creams or ointments (Nemeth, 2021).
Lifestyle changes and home remedies are also helpful in managing eczema. These include (NEA, 2022):
- Avoiding triggers, such as certain fabrics, soaps, detergents, and environmental allergens
- Wearing loose-fitting clothing made of soft, breathable materials
- Implementing a daily skincare routine
- Following any care plans prescribed by your provider
What is eczema? The causes, symptoms, and treatments explained
Hives (also known as urticaria) are raised, itchy, red bumps that can form on any part of the body as the result of an allergic reaction.
Hives can be triggered by many things, including food allergies, insect bites, and medications. They can range in size from a few millimeters to several centimeters. Hives usually go away on their own, but, in some cases, they may require medical treatment (Schaefer, 2017).
If you have hives, it’s important to identify and avoid any triggers that may be causing them. If avoiding triggers isn’t possible or your hives are severe, your healthcare provider may prescribe medications to help relieve your symptoms.
Psoriasis is a chronic, autoimmune condition that causes the rapid buildup of skin cells. This leads to the formation of scaly, itchy patches on the skin and scalp. It affects people of all ages and can vary in severity—from a single patch to large, thick plaques covering the entire body (Nair, 2022).
Treatment typically involves the use of medicated shampoos, creams, and ointments on the affected area. In severe cases, your healthcare provider may prescribe oral or injected steroids. Ultraviolet light therapy may also be used to help clear up the condition (Nair, 2022).
Head lice are small insects that infest the hair and scalp. They are most common in children and spread through close contact. Head lice cause itching and bumps on the scalp.
There are several over-the-counter (OTC) head lice treatments available. These typically involve the use of medicated shampoos, combs, and lotions. If OTC hair products don’t work or the infestation returns after treatment, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication.
Ringworm of the scalp (also called tinea capitis) is a fungal infection that affects the skin, scalp, or nails. It’s characterized by a circular rash that’s red, scaly, and itchy. The center of the rash may be lighter in color, giving it a “ring” appearance.
Ringworm is contagious and spreads through direct contact with an infected person or animal (Yee, 2022).
Scarring alopecia: types and treatments
Ringworm is treated with over-the-counter antifungal creams and ointments. In more severe cases, your healthcare provider may prescribe a stronger antifungal medication. It’s important to finish the entire course of treatment to prevent the infection from returning (Yee, 2022).
Pilar cysts are non-cancerous growths that commonly form in clogged hair follicles on the scalp, face, or neck. They’re often filled with keratin, a protein found in the hair, skin, and nails. Pilar cysts are typically round or oval and grow very slowly. They’re not usually painful but can become inflamed or infected—leading to redness, swelling, and discomfort (Al Aboud, 2022).
Pilar cysts don’t always require treatment. However, your provider may recommend surgical removal to avoid potential complications. Cysts that become infected may require antibiotics (Al Aboud, 2022).
Seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin condition that affects the scalp, face, and chest. It’s characterized by scaly, itchy, red patches of skin. The condition is thought to be caused by a combination of factors, including hormones, genetics, and yeast that naturally occurs on the skin.
You can develop seborrheic dermatitis at any age, including during the early stages of infancy—called seborrheic dermatitis or cradle cap. Middle-aged adults, men, and those with certain conditions that weaken the immune system are at an increased risk of developing the condition (Tucker, 2022).
Age is the main factor that determines treatment. In infants, seborrheic dermatitis typically goes away on its own within a few months. If treatment is necessary, sorbolene lotion helps soften the scales for removal (Tucker, 2022).
In adults, topical products, shampoos, and oral medications may be necessary to control symptoms (Tucker, 2022).
Shingles is a viral infection that triggers a painful, blistering rash. It’s caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which is the same virus that causes chickenpox. You can become infected with shingles at any age, but it’s most common in people over 50 (Koshy, 2018).
Hair shedding vs. hair loss: what’s the difference?
When the rash appears, it often follows a line of nerves on one side of the body. It may spread, fill with fluid, and crust over. Shingles is often very painful and can last for several weeks. Even after the rash disappears, long-lasting nerve pain—called postherpetic neuralgia—may remain for several months. Shingles is contagious, but mainly to people who have never had chickenpox, the chicken pox vaccine, or the shingles vaccine (Nair, 2021).
Antiviral medications including acyclovir, famciclovir, and valacyclovir (see Important Safety Information) are the most effective treatment options. These can help shorten the duration of the illness and may help prevent postherpetic neuralgia. OTC pain relievers, such as Tylenol and ibuprofen, and cool compresses may also help relieve symptoms (Nair, 2021).
Skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, affecting millions of Americans each year (AAD, 2022). It can occur on any part of the body, but it’s most common on the face, scalp, neck, and hands. It’s mainly caused by UV radiation from the sun, but genetic and lifestyle factors also contribute to the development of the disease (Gruber, 2021).
There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common, and they’re usually not life-threatening. Melanoma is more aggressive and can spread to other parts of the body, making it more dangerous (Gruber, 2021).
The treatment for skin cancer depends on the type and stage of cancer. In many cases, surgery is the best option. Other treatments include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy. Your skin cancer workup will likely include a biopsy to determine the best treatment option for you (Gruber, 2021).
When to see a healthcare provider
Skin conditions that affect the scalp are fairly common, and most can be successfully treated at home. However, if you have any concerns about your condition or if it’s not responding to treatment, see your healthcare provider or a dermatologist (a healthcare provider that specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of skin conditions) for a thorough assessment.
Is shingles contagious? How does shingles spread?
Your provider can help determine the cause of your condition and recommend the best treatment plan. Additionally, you should seek care if you have a rash that doesn’t go away after a few days, a rash that is accompanied by fever, chills, or other symptoms, or a rash that continues to get worse instead of better.
- Al Aboud, D. M., Yarrarapu, S. N. S., & Patel, B. C. (2022). Pilar Cyst. StatPearls. Retrieved on June 1, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK534209
- American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD). (n.d.) Acne-Like Breakouts Could Be Folliculitis. Retrieved June 3, 2022 from https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/a-z/folliculitis
- American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD). (2022). Skin Cancer. Retrieved from https://www.aad.org/media/stats-skin-cancer
- Cummings, C., Finlay, J. C., & MacDonald, N. E. (2018). Head lice infestations: A clinical update. Paediatrics & Child Health, 23(1), e18. doi:10.1093/pch/pxx165. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5814977
- Gruber, P. & Zito, P. M. (2021). Skin Cancer. StatPearls. Retrieved on June 1, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441949
- Koshy, E., Mengting, L., Kumar, H., et al. (2018). Epidemiology, treatment and prevention of herpes zoster: a comprehensive review. Indian Journal of Dermatology, Venereology and Leprology, 84(3), 251–262. doi:10.4103/ijdvl.IJDVL_1021_16. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29516900/
- Nair, P. A. & Patel, B. C. (2021). Herpes Zoster. StatPearls. Retrieved June 3, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441824/
- Nair, P. A. & Badri, T. (2022). Psoriasis. StatPearls. Retrieved June 3, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448194/
- National Eczema Association (NEA). (2022). Available Eczema Treatments. Retrieved June 3, 2022 from https://nationaleczema.org/eczema/treatment/
- Nemeth, V. & Evans, J. (2021). Eczema. StatPearls. Retrieved on June 1, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538209
- Ogé, L. K., Broussard, A., & Marshall, M. D. (2019). Acne Vulgaris: Diagnosis and Treatment. American Family Physician, 100(8), 475–484. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2019/1015/p475.html
- Schaefer, P. (2017). Acute and Chronic Urticaria: Evaluation and Treatment. American Family Physician, 95(11), 717–724. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2017/0601/p717.html
- Tucker, D. & Masood, S. (2022). Seborrheic Dermatitis. StatPearls. Retrieved on June 1, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK551707
- Yee, G. & Al Aboud, A. M. (2022). Tinea Corporis. StatPearls. Retrieved on June 1, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK544360
- Winters, R. D. & Mitchell, M. (2022). Folliculitis. StatPearls. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK547754/
Dr. Chimene Richa is a board-certified Ophthalmologist and Senior Medical Writer/Reviewer at Ro.