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Cradle cap is a greasy, yellowish, scaly rash that appears in patches on the scalps of infants. It is not clear what causes cradle cap, but it may stem from overactive sebaceous glands, a fungal infection, or both.
The condition is very common, and generally appears within the first 3 months of life. It is normally safe, and it rarely causes the infant any discomfort.
Cradle cap is also known as crusta lacteal, honeycomb disease, milk crust, pityriasis capitis, and infantile seborrhoeic dermatitis.
It is not contagious, and in no way does it reflect how well the child is being cared for. It is not clear exactly what causes cradle cap.
Cradle cap is similar to dandruff in some ways. When cradle cap seems to appear on older infants or children, it is usually dandruff.
Cradle cap is believed to affect 10 percent of infants up to the ages of 1 month, and the prevalence peaks at 70 percent by 3 months of age. In infants aged 1 to 2 years, the prevalence is only 7 percent.
Mild cases of cradle cap will disappear without intervention in a few months.
Meanwhile, a caregiver or parent should gently wash the infant’s head every day with a mild baby shampoo, and delicately brush the scalp with a soft brush or a special cradle cap brush, to loosen the scales. These brushes are available for purchase online.
After the scales disappear, the gentle washing process should be repeated every few days to prevent them from returning.
If this does not help, a parent or caregiver should consult a doctor or pediatrician.
They may advise using a stronger shampoo, for example, an adult dandruff shampoo, or applying an oil or lotion to the affected area to soften the scaly patches.
Any oil or lotion should be applied before shampoo as leaving the oil on can cause more scales to form.
Cradle cap is rarely serious, but parents can consult a physician if they are unsure how severe it is.
It is not clear what causes cradle cap, but it is not caused by allergy, bacterial infection, or bad hygiene.
It may stem from overactive sebaceous glands, a fungal infection, or both. The sebaceous glands are found in the skin and produce an oil-like substance, known as sebum.
Overactive sebaceous glands may produce too much sebum, and this could prevent the old skin cells from drying and falling off the scalp. Instead, they stick to the scalp.
The reason why the glands are overactive may be because the mother’s hormones stay in the baby’s body for a number of months after birth.
If a fungal infection occurs, it could be the result of the mother taking antibiotics before giving birth, or because the baby was given them up to a week after birth.
Antibiotics destroy bacteria that cause damage, but they can also destroy the useful bacteria that prevent things like fungal infection.
Cradle cap is normally nothing to worry about and clears up on its own. Because no one is too sure why cradle cap happens, it is not possible to prevent it.
However, if a case of cradle cap has been treated and the patches have gone, gentle washing and brushing, as described earlier, will prevent them from reoccurring.
Although cradle cap is rarely serious, it should be monitored in case it gets worse.
If any of the following occur, it is advisable to seek medical help:
- Areas start to go red
- Patches start to look irritated
- Affected area spreads to the face or starts to appear on the body
- Diaper rash occurs
- The infant develops a fungal ear infection
- Signs of thrush appear.
If there is a fungal infection, it can develop and allow the growth of bacteria.
In a more severe case of cradle cap, bacteria can develop in areas that might be cracked or bleeding.
It is also vital to inform the doctor of any other problems, such as diarrhea, as these could be linked to cradle cap.
An infant is most likely to experience cradle cap at or shortly after birth.
There will be:
- Patches of scalp that are yellow and greasy
- Dandruff-like flakes of skin on the scalp
- Crusty yellow areas on the scalp
- Areas of the scalp that are like scales
The affected area may go red.
Cradle cap typically starts on the baby’s scalp and can spread to the area behind the ears.
It may also appear in patches on the nose, eyelids, groin, armpits, and backs of the knees.
When it appears on the body, it is not known as cradle cap but as a skin condition, seborrhoeic eczema.
It is important not to pick or scratch the area, as this may lead to infection. After a patch falls off or is removed, there may be hair loss in that area.