Potential Causes of Red Spots on Your Scalp and How to Treat Them

It might not be curable, but treatment can help

Scalp conditions can cause red spots on the scalp. Many conditions that cause red spots on the scalp cannot be cured, but there are treatments that can help with symptoms (such as itching). 

This article will go over the common causes of red spots on the scalp and how they’re treated.

person checking scalp

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Scalp Psoriasis

Scalp psoriasis is a chronic (long-term) inflammatory condition. Half of the people with psoriasis have it on their scalp, where it can look like red spots or sores.

Psoriasis is considered an autoimmune disorder because the immune system attacks healthy skin cells, which leads to cells growing faster. Psoriasis tends to run in families (hereditary).

The symptoms of scalp psoriasis may include:

  • Small red bumps that grow and form scales
  • Thick, white, or red plaques covered with silver-gray scales
  • Itching (which can result in tearing off scales and bleeding from scratching)
  • Bumpy, red silvery-scaled patches of skin
  • Scalp lesions and dandruff-like flakes (similar to seborrheic dermatitis)
  • Extensive loss of hair may occur in severe types of psoriasis

Scalp psoriasis is considered a chronic (long-term) inflammatory disorder. You will usually have times when your psoriasis symptoms go away (remit) and then come back (relapse). It cannot be cured, but there are treatments for scalp psoriasis. 


Scalp psoriasis can be hard to treat, depending on how severe the condition is. 

When a person has mild scalp psoriasis, at-home treatment like over-the-counter (OTC) medicated shampoo may be enough to help with symptoms.

Shampoo with salicylic acid breaks down the scales or plaques from psoriasis, making them easier to remove. 

Severe scalp psoriasis can be treated with systemic medications, such as corticosteroids. This means the drug is given by mouth or by injection and it circulates throughout the entire body.

Treatment of scalp psoriasis also includes avoiding triggers such as:

  • Alcohol
  • Stress
  • Smoking
  • Infections
  • Extreme temperatures
  • Sunlight
  • Certain medications

Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is a long-term, inflammatory skin condition that can cause red spots on the scalp. 

Seborrheic dermatitis is most often found in parts of the body that make oil (sebum) in special glands (sebaceous glands). The scalp is a very common area for seborrheic dermatitis because it produces a lot of sebum.

In babies, seborrheic dermatitis is called cradle cap.

Symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis may include:

  • White flake on the scalp
  • Dandruff-like, itchy white flakes on the scalp
  • Red scales on the skin
  • Thick, pinkish plaques on the face
  • Flaky patches on the chest and hairline
  • A rash comprised of red spots on the scalp
  • Greasy yellow scales on the scalp
  • Yellow crusty powdery flakes on the scalp

Can Seborrheic Dermatitis Cause Hair Loss?

With seborrheic dermatitis, you may have an overgrowth of Malassezia yeast on your scalp. 

Untreated, this overgrowth can damage the hair follicles and cause you to lose your hair.

However, this type of hair loss is treatable and can be reversible.


Although there is no cure for seborrheic dermatitis, there are at-home and prescription treatments that can help alleviate symptoms such as inflammation and itching.

Possible treatments for seborrheic dermatitis on the scalp include:

  • OTC medicated shampoo
  • Antifungal medications
  • A calcineurin inhibitor (acts on the immune system to reduce skin inflammation)
  • Corticosteroids (reduce inflammation)

Ringworm (Tinea Capitis)

Tinea capitis (scalp ringworm) is a type of fungal infection that commonly affects small children and can cause red spots on the scalp. Ringworm often breaks out in schools or daycare centers because kids are in close physical contact.

When ringworm is on the head, it’s called tinea capitis; when it occurs on the skin, the name is tinea corporis.

The fungi that cause tinea capitis are very small plant-like organisms that thrive in damp, warm, dark environments.

When fungus grows on the scalp, ringworm can look like a small sore that appears pimple-like. 

The affected area gets flaky, patchy, or even scaly. The flakes look like dandruff, but, unlike dandruff, ringworm can cause the hair to break off, forming stubble and leaving a bald spot on the head.

Ringworm makes the scalp look red, and the affected area can be swollen and tender. 

Sometimes, ringworm causes a mass filled with pus. Scalp ringworm can also cause swollen lymph nodes at the back of the neck.


Some at-home treatments like antifungal sprays, creams, or powders can be enough to treat minor tinea capitis. 

When the condition is more severe, you may need a prescription medication that is put on the skin or given orally (by mouth) to treat the fungus systemically (circulating throughout the entire body).

Ringworm on the scalp may need treatment for up to three months. Antifungal shampoo might be recommended by the healthcare provider to prevent the spread of ringworm to others.

Ringworm Spreads Easily

Ringworm is very contagious. It can be easily spread by sharing personal items or touching a person who has ringworm. Be sure to wash your hands before and after applying the topical medication to prevent spreading it to other parts of the body.


Folliculitis is an inflammatory disease of the skin and scalp that can cause red spots. 

Folliculitis can show up on parts of the body that have hair and hair follicles, including the head, beard, arms, back, legs, and buttocks.

Hair follicles are openings with very small pouches in which hair grows and sebum is produced. Folliculitis could be caused by a bacterial, fungal, or parasitic infection.

The symptoms of folliculitis on the scalp could include:

  • Reddened, painful, skin
  • Burning sensation
  • Pimple-like red spots (with a strand of hair in the center)
  • Pus may or may not be visible in the red spots


Home remedies, such as warm compresses, can often treat mild cases of folliculitis.

Systemic medications such as oral antibiotics or antifungal medication can be prescribed by a healthcare provider if needed. 


Acne is a common skin condition that often affects adolescents but it can occur at any age. Acne can cause red spots on the scalp. 

Acne is linked with excess sebum production, clogged hair follicles, and hormones. Acne is also thought to have a genetic link.

Acne on the scalp can be caused by:

  • Blockage of the follicles (from dead skin cells and sebum)
  • A buildup of hair products on the scalp (particularly leave-in products such as hair gel and hairspray).

The symptoms of acne are primarily red spots (pimples) that can show up on the face, forehead, chest, upper back, and shoulders. When acne affects the scalp, it can cause symptoms such as:

  • Pimples on the scalp, the neck, or the back of the head
  • Soreness or itchiness of affected areas
  • The pimples occur in the scalp in a blocked pore or hair follicle

Acne comes in several forms, including:

  • Blackheads: Open, raised bumps, filled with excess sebum and dead skin that appear black in the middle
  • Whiteheads: Closed raised bumps that contain sebum and dead skin and appear white inside
  • Papules: Inflamed pink or red bumps
  • Pustules: Pimples that contain pus
  • Nodules: Large, deep, painful pimples


Scalp acne is usually treated with medicated shampoo or scalp treatments. The shampoo helps to keep sebum at bay, which may prevent acne from recurring. Some types of medicated shampoo can be purchased OTC.

Head Lice

Head lice is a condition caused by live insects that are approximately the size of a sesame seed. If the insects bite the top of the head, lice can cause red spots on the scalp.

Lice are often difficult to find, but their eggs, called nits, are usually easier to spot. The nits appear as oval-shaped or round globules, stuck to strands of hair; it takes a special type of comb to remove them.

Lice cause the skin to develop red bumps on the scalp, neck, and shoulders. Symptoms include:

  • Severe itching
  • Intense scratching
  • Sores and scabs
  • Possible infection (from scratching)
  • Red bumps (in response to the insect bites that often cause an allergic response)


The treatment of lice is very specific. It involves killing the lice and getting rid of nits. 

A combination of home treatments and prescription medications can kill lice: 

  • Shampooing with a special medicated shampoo
  • Removing nits with a special comb
  • Wash items (such as bed linens and clothing) in hot water to kill the lice.
  • Refrain from sharing personal items
  • Placing items that cannot be washed in a sealed plastic bag to kill the lice

Keep in mind that lice are very contagious. Avoid sharing combs, hats, clothing, towels, and other personal items with a person who has lice.

Lichen Planopilaris

Lichen planopilaris is the name for lichen planus that causes permanent scarring, distinct patches of hair loss, redness around the hair follicle, and inflammation on the scalp around hair follicles that are affected by the disorder. You may see red spots on your scalp from lichen planopilaris. 

Symptoms of lichen planopilaris may include:

  • Smooth white patches of hair loss on the scalp
  • Absence of hair follicle opening in the area of hair loss
  • Redness around the hair follicle at the edges that look like red spots
  • Scales around the affected hair follicles at the edges of the white patches
  • Hair follicles that feel spiny
  • Hair that can be pulled out easily
  • Itching, pain, and burning (though some people do not have these symptoms)


Treatment for lichen planopilaris should be started as early as possible.

Once the hair follicle is scarred, nothing can be done to recover hairs that have been lost. The overall goal of treatment is to slow down the progression of the disorder and to manage symptoms.

Hair loss may continue, even with treatment, but the goal of treatment is to slow it. 

Oral medications that have anti-inflammatory properties are given for lichen planopilaris, including:

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If you have a condition with red spots on the scalp and home remedies and OTC medications do not work, it’s time to talk with a healthcare provider.

If you have symptoms of infection (possibly from scratching itchy red spots on your scalp), you need medical treatment. 

Signs of skin infection include:

  • Redness
  • Fluid or pus draining from the affected area
  • Sores that appear to be blisters
  • Red spots with a yellowish crust on top
  • Pain or swelling that worsens (even after home treatment)
  • A fever


Red spots on the scalp can be caused by conditions like psoriasis, dermatitis, folliculitis, ringworm, acne, head lice, and lice planopilaris. 

To find out for sure why you have red spots on your scalp, see a provider. Once you know what’s causing the red spots on your scalp, you can find the best way to treat them. 

You might not be able to get rid of the spots or prevent them from coming back, but many at-home remedies and medical treatments can help with the symptoms. 

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Clark, G. American Family Physicians. The treatment and diagnosis of seborrheic dermatitis.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Seborrheic dermatitis.

  4. Trüeb RM, Henry JP, Davis MG, Schwartz JR. Scalp Condition Impacts Hair Growth and Retention via Oxidative Stress. Int J Trichology. 2018 Nov-Dec;10(6):262-270. doi:10.4103/ijt.ijt_57_18

  5. KidsHealth from Nemours. Ringworm.

  6. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Ringworm: diagnosis and treatment.

  7. Cleveland Clinic. Acne.

  8. Dyall-Smith, D. DermNet NZ. Lichen planopilaris.

By Sherry Christiansen
Sherry Christiansen is a medical writer with a healthcare background. She has worked in the hospital setting and collaborated on Alzheimer's research.