The Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments of Tinea Capitis

Tinea Capitis (TC), commonly known as scalp ringworm, is a fungal infection that affects the scalp and hair. This condition, which primarily occurs in children but can affect people of all ages, can be both uncomfortable and aesthetically distressing. In this article, we will explore tinea capitis, examining its causes, symptoms, and available insights into this fungal infection that affects the scalp.

Close up of scalp showing tinea capitis hair loss

What is Tinea Capitis?

Tinea capitis, or scalp ringworm, presents as a fungal infection affecting the scalp and hair follicles. Primarily observed in children, this contagious condition can impact individuals of all ages. The culprit behind this condition is various species of dermatophyte fungi, usually Trichophyton or Microsporum. Consequently, individuals may experience symptoms such as itching, redness, scaling, and the formation of circular bald patches on the scalp. The transmission occurs through direct contact with an infected person, contaminated objects like combs or hats, or even from pets carrying the fungi. Therefore, prompt diagnosis and treatment by a healthcare professional are imperative not only to control the infection but also to prevent its spread to others. Treatment typically involves the use of antifungal medications, often administered in the form of oral tablets or medicated shampoos, to combat tinea capitis and facilitate hair regrowth.

Causes of Tinea Capitis

Tinea capitis is primarily attributed dermatophyte fungi that thrive on the scalp and hair follicles, leading to infection. Here, we delve into the primary causes and risk factors:

  • Fungal Infection: The predominant cause lies in the presence of dermatophyte fungi on the scalp, encompassing species like Trichophyton and Microsporum. These can infiltrate the hair shafts and follicles.
  • Direct Contact: TC is highly contagious, commonly spreading through direct contact with an infected person. This transmission can occur during activities like hugging, sharing combs or brushes, or through contact during play.
  • Contaminated Objects: Sharing personal items such as combs, brushes, hats, or towels with an infected individual can facilitate the transfer of fungi. Finally this leads to an infection in the uninfected person.
  • Pets: Certain animals, particularly cats and dogs, can carry dermatophyte fungi on their fur. Close contact with infected pets can result in transmission to humans.
  • Environmental Factors: Exposure to contaminated surfaces in public places like swimming pools, gyms, or barber shops may also contribute to the acquisition of TC.
  • Weakened Immune System: Individuals with compromised immune systems may exhibit increased susceptibility to fungal infections, including TC.

It’s important to emphasize that while the fungi responsible are contagious, not everyone exposed will develop an infection. Furthermore, the presentation of tinea capitis can vary, with some individuals experiencing mild symptoms and others with more severe infections. Hence, prompt diagnosis and treatment remain pivotal to both controlling the infection and preventing its further spread.

Symptoms of Tinea Capitis

Tinea capitis can present with a variety of symptoms. The specific symptoms can vary among individuals and may include:

  • Itching: Mild to severe itching of the scalp is a common symptom of TC. This itching can lead to discomfort and may be one of the earliest signs of the infection.
  • Red or Scaly Patches: Circular, red, or scaly patches on the scalp are often visible. These patches may be small or large and can appear anywhere on the scalp.
  • Hair Loss: Hair loss is a characteristic feature of TC. As the infection progresses, the affected hair becomes brittle and may break off at or just above the surface of the scalp, leading to bald patches.
  • Brittle Hair: Infected hair often becomes brittle and can easily break or fall out. The loss of hair may result in a “black dot” appearance, where hair shafts break at the scalp.
  • Pustules or Blisters: Some forms of TC can lead to the development of pustules or small fluid-filled blisters on the scalp.
  • Swelling and Tender Scalp: In more severe cases, the scalp may become swollen, tender to the touch, or painful.
  • Enlarged Lymph Nodes: Swollen or tender lymph nodes in the neck, just below the ears, may occur due to the body’s immune response to the infection.
  • Scaling and Crusting: The infected areas of the scalp may develop scaling, crusting, or a fine powdery appearance.

It’s also important to note that the symptoms of tinea capitis can resemble other scalp conditions, and diagnosis by a healthcare professional is essential for proper treatment. Early detection and treatment are important not only to alleviate symptoms but also to prevent the spread of the infection to others, as tinea capitis is highly contagious.

Treatment Options

The treatment of tinea capitis (scalp ringworm) typically involves antifungal medications to eliminate the fungal infection. The specific treatment approach may vary depending on the severity of the infection, the type of fungus involved, and the individual’s age. Here are common treatment options:

  • Oral Antifungal Medications: Oral antifungal medications are usually the primary treatment for TC. Commonly prescribed medications include griseofulvin, terbinafine, and itraconazole. The choice of medication depends on the type of fungus causing the infection and the individual’s age.
  • Antifungal Shampoos: Medicated shampoos containing antifungal agents like ketoconazole or selenium sulfide may be recommended to complement oral treatment. These shampoos are used to cleanse the scalp and reduce fungal growth.
  • Topical Antifungal Creams: In some cases, topical antifungal creams or ointments may be prescribed to apply directly to the affected areas. However, these are generally less effective for scalp ringworm compared to oral medications.
  • Medicated Hair Washes: Medicated hair washes containing antifungal agents can be used to cleanse the scalp and hair.
  • Hygiene Measures: Proper hygiene is essential to prevent the spread of the infection. Particularly infected individuals should avoid sharing personal items like combs, brushes, hats, and towels. Frequent handwashing is also recommended.
  • Environmental Cleaning: Cleaning and disinfecting objects and surfaces that may have come into contact with the fungus, such as hairbrushes and bedding, can help prevent reinfection.
  • Treatment Duration: Treatment with oral antifungal medications typically lasts several weeks to a few months, depending on the severity of the infection. It’s crucial to complete the full course of treatment as prescribed, even if symptoms improve before the medication is finished.
  • Follow-Up: Lastly, regular follow-up appointments with a healthcare professional are essential to monitor treatment progress and ensure that the infection has been successfully eradicated.


Tinea Capitis, or scalp ringworm, is a fungal infection that affects the scalp and hair. While it can be uncomfortable and distressing, it is a treatable condition with antifungal medications. Prompt diagnosis and appropriate treatment are essential for managing TC effectively. If you or a loved one experience symptoms of a scalp infection, consult with a healthcare provider or dermatologist for a proper diagnosis and tailored treatment plan, ensuring a faster recovery and preventing the spread of this fungal scalp infection.

Want to Learn More?

View the latest scientific paper on Tinea Capitis from the National Library of Medicine. 

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