A Guide to Scalp Pain

Medically Reviewed By Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH

Many conditions can cause scalp pain, including infection, injury, and skin conditions such as sunburn. Some scalp pain causes may improve with at-home care. However, sometimes scalp pain may benefit from medical care. Scalp pain may feel slightly different to everyone, but can cause sensations of:

  • different types of pain, such as throbbing, burning, or aching
  • tenderness or sensitivity
  • inflammation
  • tingling or numbness
  • itching

It may develop due to conditions that affect the:

  • skin
  • muscles and other underlying soft tissues
  • skull and bones
  • blood vessels

If necessary, your doctor can help diagnose your condition and recommend treatment to alleviate your symptoms and address the underlying cause.

This article explains possible scalp pain causes, including their symptoms and treatment options. It also discusses when to see a doctor.

Skin conditions

Someone touches the base of their scalp and hair with their fingers.
AndreyPopov/Getty Images

Many skin conditions may cause soreness or pain on the scalp.

The following table shows skin conditions that may cause scalp pain and their symptoms:

ConditionTypical symptoms
folliculitis, inflammation of the hair folliclesFolliculitis may cause multiple small, discolored bumps that resemble pimples. These bumps may itch, develop into blisters, or crust over.
contact dermatitis after exposure to an allergen or irritant, such as certain chemicals in haircare productsContact irritation can cause rashes or dry skin that may itch, scale, or blister.
eczemaOther types of eczema apart from contact dermatitis may also cause itchy, dry, or sore skin rashes.
sunburnSunburn may lead to red or discolored skin that may feel sore, warm, and itchy. The affected skin may flake and peel after a few days.
psoriasisPsoriasis causes patches of skin that may appear discolored, flaky, or hardened.
cystsCysts can appear as round or dome-shaped lumps just beneath the skin. They may grow slowly and develop a small, dark spot in their center.

Treatment options

The most effective treatment can vary based on the exact condition and its severity.

Your doctor may recommend:

  • topical medications or ointments
  • oral medications
  • over-the-counter (OTC) products, such as moisturizers or pain relief

Headache and migraine

Different types of headaches and migraine may also cause scalp pain. For example, a tension headache occurs when the neck and scalp muscles contract or tense up.

Many factors may cause or trigger a headache or migraine. Sometimes headaches can be caused by other underlying conditions, such as infection, head injury, or blood vessel conditions.

If you have a headache alongside other symptoms, or during or after illness or injury, contact your doctor as soon as possible.

Symptoms

Headaches and migraine may cause pain that feels like throbbing, burning, or aching. It may be located in one specific area, many different areas, or move from spot to spot.

While head and scalp pain may be the most typical symptoms of headache and migraine, you may also experience:

Treatment options

Treatment options vary based on the severity, cause, and frequency of your headaches.

Some headaches can be treated by addressing the underlying cause and taking temporary pain relief medication.

For migraine, a doctor may also prescribe preventive medications to take regularly.

Learn more about treating headaches and migraine.

Infections

A variety of infections may cause scalp pain if they affect the surrounding area. This can include skin infections and infections of other organs and tissues.

Examples of infections that can lead to scalp pain include:

Infections can range from mild to serious. For example, seborrheic dermatitis may be treatable with at-home care and medicated shampoos. However, infections such as cellulitis and osteomyelitis can require emergency care.

Symptoms

Symptoms of infection can vary depending on the exact type of infection. However, general symptoms in addition to pain can include:

Symptoms of a skin infection may also include:

  • rashes or blistering
  • a feeling of warmth to the skin
  • a skin wound that leaks fluid or pus
  • discoloration of the skin

Contact your doctor promptly if you have any symptoms of infection.

Read more about the symptoms of skin infections.

Treatment options

Mild infections may improve with at-home care, such as OTC pain relief and keeping any wounds clean.

However, your doctor may also prescribe medications, such as antibiotics for bacterial infections and antivirals for viral infections.

Infections from parasites may be treatable with medications and physical removal, such as with medicated shampoos and combing treatments.

Skin cancer

The scalp can be easily exposed to the sun, especially if you have minimal to no hair.

High levels of exposure to the sun can increase the risk of skin cancer on the scalp, which may cause scalp pain.

Symptoms

Symptoms can vary per skin cancer type, but may include:

  • a new lesion or growth, or an already present lesion that changes shape or appearance
  • a lesion that grows in size
  • a lesion that may itch, bleed, or crust
  • a lesion or mole that looks asymmetrical, discolored, or inflamed
  • a skin wound that won’t heal or hasn’t improved

See more about what skin cancer looks like and when to see a doctor.

Treatment options

Treatment options for skin cancer may include:

  • surgical removal of the lesion
  • chemotherapy
  • radiotherapy
  • medications known as biological therapy or immunotherapy

Blood vessel conditions

Blood vessels form a network all over the body to help blood and oxygen reach the body’s tissues. This includes blood vessels in the scalp and skull.

Below are some conditions that may cause scalp or head pain, along with their symptoms and treatments:

ConditionTypical symptomsTreatment options
Temporal arteritis is inflammation of the arteries in the forehead and scalp.Temporal arteritis may cause severe and frequent headaches that cause pain over the temples or in the jaw. You may also experience vision changes, such as double or lost vision.Treatment can include medications such as corticosteroids and pain relief medications such as aspirin.
Subdural hematoma is when blood collects between the surface of the brain and the skull.Subdural hematoma may cause sudden, severe head pain and a stiff neck. It can also cause nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to light, and vision changes. Treatment may involve oxygen therapy, medications, or surgery.
Subarachnoid hemorrhage is when there is bleeding in the space around the brain.Subarachnoid hemorrhage can also cause sudden and severe headaches. It may also cause vomiting and sensitivity to light. Subarachnoid hemorrhage may be treated with medications or surgery.

Call 911 for any symptoms of subdural hematoma or subarachnoid hemorrhage.

Other possible causes

Other conditions that may cause scalp pain include:

Learn more about concussion and head injuries.

When to see a doctor

Contact your doctor promptly if you have any symptoms of conditions such as:

  • head or neck injury
  • infection
  • skin cancer
  • blood vessel conditions

Also, get prompt medical advice if you have any symptoms that:

  • seem sudden or severe
  • feel concerning
  • worsen, don’t improve, or go away and come back

Your doctor can help diagnose the underlying cause and recommend the most effective treatment plan to relieve your scalp pain.

Summary

There are many possible scalp pain causes, which can range from mild to serious. Some causes may be manageable with at-home care, such as mild rashes, infections, or headaches. Other more serious causes can include head injuries, skin cancer, and conditions affecting the blood vessels.

The exact treatment can vary widely depending on the exact cause of your scalp pain.

You may experience additional symptoms alongside scalp pain. These symptoms may help indicate the underlying cause. For example, a wound with pus may suggest your pain is due to a skin infection. However, seek personal advice from a doctor before trying to self-treat or diagnose your condition.

Contact a doctor promptly for any concerning or severe symptoms, or symptoms that do not improve.

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Medical Reviewer: Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH
Last Review Date: 2023 Jun 27
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.