Sores on the scalp can be a sign of skin disorders such as psoriasis, eczema, ringworm or a condition called pemphigus. They can also be a sign of scalp impetigo, a condition that can affect the skin on other areas of the body as well. It’s a problem that can affect any age group, but it’s most common in children. Epidemics of impetigo sometimes occur in schools, daycare facilities and other facilities where children are in close contact with one another.
Impetigo is a bacterial infection that’s very contagious, meaning it can be easily transmitted from one infected person to another. It’s most commonly caused by a bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus, but Strep bacteria are a common source of infection too.
Impetigo of the scalp can be easily confused with ringworm. One clue that it’s impetigo rather than ringworm is the presence of blisters and sores on the face and body as well as the scalp. Impetigo often infects areas of the skin at the same time it affects the scalp. These blisters may look inflamed and crusty and often rupture releasing yellow fluid. In most cases, a doctor can diagnose the condition by looking at the sores, although occasionally fluid from one of the blisters is sent to the lab to confirm the diagnosis.
Impetigo is more common during the summer months when the weather is warm and humid and in areas where people, particularly children, congregate together. Poor hygiene and hand washing practices are a contributing factor in many cases. Adults are more resistant to impetigo than children are since they have a more mature immune system, but adults who have other medical problems or a depressed immune system are at greater risk. Impetigo is more common in areas where the skin or scalp have been cut or abraded, although it can affect intact skin too.
Doctors often prescribe topical antibiotics to treat impetigo when the infection isn’t too extensive. In cases where infection is more widespread, they may prescribe oral antibiotics. Oral antibiotics may be more effective for scalp impetigo since hair may hide some of the infected areas. The drawback to oral antibiotics is the potential for side effects.
Very mild cases of scalp impetigo may not require prescription antibiotic treatment, but it’s a good idea to check with a doctor before treating it at home. There are antibacterial ointments available at most pharmacies that are helpful for in-home treatments. After cleansing the affected areas with anti-bacterial soap and water using firm pressure to loosen any scabs. Then apply antibacterial ointment three times a day. Wash your hands thoroughly after touching the areas to avoid spreading the infection.
According to some small studies, topical tea tree oil is effective for treating impetigo, although it should be used with caution since it can trigger allergic reactions in some people. Most sources recommend applying two to three drops of tea oil three times a day to treat impetigo. You can also add tea tree oil to shampoo to treat the affected areas.
Keep in mind that impetigo is highly contagious, and it’s important to keep affected areas covered with gauze to prevent spread, practice frequent hand washing and avoid sharing towels.
In very young children, there’s some evidence that taking zinc supplements reduces the risk of impetigo, but there isn’t enough evidence at this point to say whether it’s effective in older children and adults. The best way to prevent impetigo of the skin or scalp is to avoid touching people with open skin blisters or sores, wash hands frequently and don’t share towels or other personal articles with others.