Seborrhea: A-to-Z Guide from Diagnosis to Treatment to Prevention

Seborrhea is a chronic skin condition that shows up where and when the sebaceous glands in the skin are most active. It is most common in babies and teens.

Introduction to seborrhea:

What do babies and teens have in common? Seborrhea!

What is it?

Seborrhea is a chronic skin condition that shows up where and when the sebaceous glands in the skin are most active.

Who gets it?

Anyone can get it. It is more common in children than in adults, especially during the first year of life and during the teenage years.

Most people with seborrhea are otherwise healthy, but people with HIV often develop severe cases of it.

What are the symptoms?

The main feature of seborrhea during childhood is red skin covered with greasy, crusty scales. It’s most common behind the ears, under the arms, in the diaper area, and on the face and neck. In the first month of life it is most common on the scalp, where it is called cradle cap. In teens, the seborrhea may only appear as the dry flakes of dandruff. It may also appear on the eyelids or concentrated in the beard area. Occasionally it shows up in ear canals or in the belly button.

If it itches at all, the itching is typically mild.

Is it contagious?


How long does it last?

Most seborrhea in babies disappears by the first birthday. In teens, it may only be present during puberty, or it may become a lifelong condition.

How is it diagnosed?

It is usually diagnosed based on the physical exam.

How is it treated?

It is often treated with an anti-seborrhea shampoo containing sulfur, salicylic acid, selenium, zinc, or tar. Stronger treatments are available if needed.

Some children have eczema or fungal infections in the same areas. This needs to be treated at the same time. (J Am Acad Dermatol 1993 Dec;29(6):1008-12).

How can it be prevented?

Often seborrhea cannot be prevented. Sometimes gentle skin cleansing and avoiding excess perspiration can reduce or prevent seborrhea.

Last medical review on: November 14, 2013
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Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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