10 reasons your scalp itches and how to get relief

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Dandruff often causes visible flakes on the scalp.

When your scalp itches, it can be difficult to think about anything else. You may feel that the itch will never stop, but relief is possible. Getting rid of the itch begins with finding out why your scalp itches. Here are 10 reasons for an itchy scalp along with dermatologists’ advice on what can bring relief.

  1. Dandruff: If your scalp is dry and itchy and you see flakes on your hair or clothing, you may have dandruff.

    How to get relief: If you have dandruff, using a dandruff shampoo and scalp treatments can help. You can find out how to get the best results from these products by watching the short video:
    eye-allergic-reaction.jpg
    An allergic reaction to shampoo caused a rash on her scalp and eyelid.

    How to treat dandruff

  2. Reaction to a hair care product: An itchy, dry, and flaky scalp could be telling you that you need to do a better job of rinsing the shampoo from your hair. Leaving some shampoo on your scalp can irritate it.

    If you have an itchy scalp and a rash, you may have a condition called allergic contact dermatitis. This is common among people who dye their hair. Often the culprit is an ingredient in the dye called para-phenylenediamine (PPD), which is found in black hair dyes.

    You could also have an allergy to a shampoo, conditioner, or other product that touches your scalp. If that’s the case, you’ll likely have an itchy rash on your scalp and any other skin that the product touches.
    hives.jpg
    When hives form on the scalp, you’ll often have a rash of itchy red bumps that look like the ones shown here.

    An allergic reaction to shampoo caused a rash on her scalp and eyelid.

    How to get relief: To stop the itch, you must stop using the product that’s causing the reaction. If you’re having a hard time finding it, a board-certified dermatologist can help.

  3. Hives: These are red, raised, and very itchy bumps that can form anywhere on the skin, including the scalp. Hives tend to come and go within a few hours. Sometimes, hives go away and come back. If hives come and go for longer than 6 weeks, they’re called chronic (long-lasting) hives.
    head-lice-landing.jpg
    A magnified view of head lice on a comb shows that these bugs are tiny. When looking closely at the scalp, you’re more likely to notice movement than the lice.

    How to get relief: Hives often go away on their own, but if they’re long-lasting, treatment can help. Dermatologists frequently treat hives.

  4. Head lice: An itchy scalp is the most common symptom of head lice. If you suspect that head lice are causing the itch, ask someone to closely examine your scalp and hair for signs of these tiny bugs.

    How to get relief: To get rid of the itch, you need to get rid of the lice. You can find out how to check for head lice and treat them at home by going to:

    Head lice: Diagnosis and treatment

  5. baby-face-scabies.jpg
    Scabies on the scalp can cause intense itching and a rash of little bumps that look like the ones on this baby’s face.
  6. Scabies: Scabies is caused by a tiny bug called the human itch mite. If these mites burrow into your scalp, your scalp can become quite itchy. Itch is the most common symptom of scabies, and it can be so intense that it keeps you awake at night.

    How to get relief: To make sure that you have scabies, you should see your primary care doctor or a board-certified dermatologist. If you have scabies, you will need treatment, which is only available with a doctor’s prescription.

  7. Scalp ringworm: Ringworm isn’t caused by worms. It’s an infection caused by a fungus. If you get ringworm on your scalp, you’ll likely have a red and intensely itchy rash.
    ringworm-scalp.jpg
    This 4-year-old African American girl has scalp ringworm, which has caused pus-filled bumps, hair loss, and an intensely itchy scalp.

    How to get relief: To get relief, you need an accurate diagnosis and treatment for ringworm.

    Treating ringworm on the scalp requires prescription medication, so you’ll need to see a doctor. Dermatologists often treat ringworm, so it can be helpful to see a board-certified dermatologist.

  8. Scalp psoriasis: About 50% of the people who have plaque psoriasis experience a flare-up on the scalp at some point. On the scalp, you may have reddish patches, dandruff-like flaking, silvery-white scale, and a dry scalp. Scalp psoriasis is often itchy, with the itch ranging from mild to intense.

    How to get relief: There are many treatments for scalp psoriasis. Some people get relief from a medicated shampoo or other treatment that you can buy without a prescription.
    scalp-psoriasis-extending-to-neck.jpg
    Scalp psoriasis can extend beyond the scalp to the back of the neck or behind the ears.

    You can find out more about treatment options at Scalp psoriasis: Shampoos, scale softeners, and other treatments.

  9. Atopic dermatitis: If you have a type of eczema known as atopic dermatitis (AD), it can develop on your scalp. When this happens, you can have redness and scale on your scalp. Some people say their scalp burns, and the scalp is often itchy.

    How to get relief: Treating the AD can bring relief. Because the skin on your scalp differs from the skin elsewhere on your body, it’s best to see a board-certified dermatologist for a treatment plan.

  10. atopic-dermatitis-extending-to-ear.jpg
    Scratching the intensely itchy atopic dermatitis on her scalp and behind her ear led to the infection seen here.
  11. Nerve problem: An intensely itchy scalp without signs of a rash or another skin reaction can be a sign of a nerve problem. Your doctor may say you have neuropathy (neu-rop-ah-thie). It’s the medical word for a problem along a nerve due to damage, disease, or an abnormality in the way the nerve works. Diseases that can affect your nerves include shingles and diabetes.

    Scarring can damage nerves. If you have hair loss that has caused scars that run deep, the scars may have damaged your nerves. This damage can cause your scalp to itch.

    How to get relief: A board-certified dermatologist can get to the root of the problem.

  12. Skin cancer: If skin cancer develops on your scalp, it may itch.
    hair-loss.jpg
    Scarring on the scalp due to hair loss can cause an intensely itchy scalp.

    How to get relief: A board-certified dermatologist should examine your scalp. These doctors have expertise in diagnosing skin cancer and can tell you whether you need to be tested for skin cancer or something else may be causing the itch.

Dermatologists help many people find relief

You’ve just read about 10 conditions that can cause an itchy scalp, but there are more. If you’re having trouble figuring out what’s causing the itch, be sure to see a board-certified dermatologist. This specialist can give you an accurate diagnosis and create a treatment plan tailored to your needs.

Find a dermatologist

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The arrows point to early skin cancers on this patient’s scalp.

Images

  • Image 1: Image used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology
  • Images 2, 5, 6: Images used with permission of the American Academy of Dermatology National Library of Dermatologic Teaching Slides
  • Images 3, 8: Images used with permission of the DermNet NZ Dermatology Image Library
  • Image 4: iStock
  • Image 7: Getty Images
  • Images 9, 10: Images used with permission of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 9) J Amer Acad of Dermatol. 2016:76(6):1081-99 and 10) J Amer Acad of Dermatol. 2011:64(3):611-3.

References
Houghton V. “The itchy scalp.” Derm World. 2017;27(12):46-52.

Mukkanna KS, Stone NM, et al. 2 “Para-phenylenediamine allergy: Current perspectives on diagnosis and management.” J Asthma Allergy. 2017;10:9-15.