Scalp pruritus, known as itchy scalp, is a common condition. There’s a wide range of causes. Dandruff and an inflammatory skin condition called seborrheic dermatitis are the most common causes of itchy scalp. Seborrheic dermatitis can result from stress, seasonal changes, fluctuating hormones, or an overgrowth of yeast on the skin. Dandruff can be caused by a too dry scalp, oily hair, and various skin conditions.
Some causes of itchy scalp require medical treatment. See your doctor if your symptoms:
• last longer than a week
• include pain, sores, or swelling
• include itching so intense it interferes with your ability to sleep or function
Symptoms of an itchy scalp
An itchy scalp can feel tingly or painful. Scratching or itching your scalp may help you feel better, or it could cause pain.
Symptoms that can accompany scalp itching include:
• bald patches
• dry skin
• irritated skin
• low-grade fever
• pus-filled sores
• scales or patches on the scalp
• scalp swelling
• sores on the scalp
Reasons your scalp itches and how to get relief
It can be difficult to think about anything else when your scalp itches. 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 the reasons for an itchy scalp, along with dermatologists’ advice on what can bring relief.
Dandruff is a common condition that can cause the scalp to become dry, itchy, and flaky. As much as 95% of the population have or will have dandruff at some point in their life. Contrary to popular belief, dandruff is not a result of poor hygiene—though not washing your hair regularly can make it more obvious. Some possible causes of dandruff include:
• Seborrheic dermatitis
• Tinea capitis (ringworm)
• Contact dermatitis
• Cradle cap
Dandruff is generally harmless, but it can affect your self-esteem because of embarrassment. You can get rid of dandruff with an over-the-counter (OTC) anti-dandruff shampoo. Ingredients typically found in these shampoos include:
• Zinc pyrithione
• Salicylic acid
• Selenium sulfide
• Coal tar
When dandruff is caused by a skin condition like psoriasis or eczema, you will need treatment from a dermatologist.
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 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 different skin that the product feels.
3. Atopic Dermatitis
Atopic dermatitis, also called eczema, is a skin condition that can cause itchy skin inflammation. It is caused by a combination of an overactive immune system, genetics, irritants in the environment like tobacco smoke, and stress. Eczema can cause a dry, itchy scalp. Other symptoms may include a red rash, swelling, bumps on the skin, crusting skin, and leathery patches of skin. Eczema on the scalp can affect people of all ages.
Topical corticosteroids such as hydrocortisone are typically the first line of treatment. Topical calcineurin inhibitors can change how the immune system works by inhibiting the production of the enzyme calcineurin, which plays a role in the activation of immune cells.
In severe cases, topical medications may not be strong enough to help. Immunosuppressive medications may be needed to dampen the immune response. It’s also important to identify triggers that worsen your eczema and avoid them. You will also want to keep your scalp moist by using lotions and creams and minimize irritation with a mild shampoo and lukewarm water.
Sunburns occur when the skin is exposed to harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays for long periods. Sunburns can range from mild to severe, and if they appear on the scalp, they can lead to dry and itchy skin. In some cases, sunburns can take up to 36 hours to fully develop, so it can be hard to assess the damage before then. Other symptoms of sunburn aside from dry and itchy skin include:
• Redness in the area
• Skin swelling
• Peeling skin
In severe cases, sunburn can cause a person to go into shock, leading to fainting, weakness, and low blood pressure. Shock requires immediate medical attention.
Sunburns need to heal independently and typically do so within weeks. Treatment may be required for severe cases. Treatment options may include:
• Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol), or aspirin
• A wet and cool compress
As your sunburn heals, you should also avoid further sun exposure.
5. Contact Dermatitis
Contact dermatitis causes a red, itchy rash when your skin comes into contact with an irritant, and it can affect your scalp. There are three types of contact dermatitis:
• Allergic contact dermatitis, which occurs when the immune system reacts to a typically harmless allergen
• Irritant contact dermatitis, which occurs when the skin comes into contact with an irritant that leads to the rash and other symptoms
• Photo contact dermatitis, which occurs when a substance on the skin reacts with UV radiation from the sun, leading to irritation
Treatment isn’t always necessary because usually, once the allergen or irritant is removed, the symptoms clear up on their own. Therefore, treatment usually involves avoiding the thing that caused it. If that’s not possible or if the rash is hard to cope with, you can:
• Get medication from your doctor or at your local drug store to help relieve the rash symptoms, such as hydrocortisone and fluocinolone.
• Use a cool compress to relieve the itchiness.
• Take the oral steroid prednisone to relieve symptoms that don’t respond to other treatments.
In severe cases, several rounds of oral steroids may be needed. This will limit the action of the immune system and thus reduce symptoms.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease caused by an overactive immune system that causes skin cells to be produced faster than the shed. It can cause a red, itchy, and scaly rash on the scalp.
Other symptoms may include:
• Cracked skin
• Scales on the scalp
The exact cause of psoriasis is unclear, but certain things can trigger a flare-up of the condition, such as stress, skin injuries, infections, and cold weather.
If psoriasis affects the scalp, treatment may include:
• Medicated shampoos: Ingredients you should look for include salicylic acid and coal tar.
• Steroid creams: These products should contain corticosteroid clobetasol.
• Phototherapy: Ultraviolet light on the scalp may help slow skin cell growth on the scalp.
• Dithranol and vitamin D analogs can control how quickly the skin cells grow, reducing the overgrowth of psoriasis symptoms.
• Biologics: Medications and therapies that suppress the immune system response may help reduce psoriasis flare-ups by reducing inflammation in the body.
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 six weeks, they’re called chronic (long-lasting) hives.
How To Get Relief: Hives often go away on their own, but if they’re long-lasting, treatment can help. Dermatologists frequently treat hives.
8. 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.
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, only available with a doctor’s prescription.
9. Scalp ringworm
Worms don’t cause ringworm. 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.
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.
10. 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. It’s the medical word for pain along a nerve due to damage, disease, or an abnormality in how the nerve works. Conditions 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 wounds 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.
11. Skin cancer
If skin cancer develops on your scalp, it may itch.
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 that may be causing the itch.
Products for itchy scalp
Are you looking for products to help with your itchy scalp? As we mentioned earlier, many mainstream products contain artificial fragrances that can cause asthma, eczema, muscle pain, bloating, sinus pain, fatigue, eye irritation, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, dizziness, and burning or itching skin irritations.
1. sulfate-free shampoo
Are you looking for an ‘itchy scalp shampoo’? You should aim to wash your hair every 7-10 days using a mild, sulfate-free shampoo. This includes when you have your hair in a protective style. This will ensure that there is no scalp build-up, that you remove enough sebum, and that dirt and dust are gone. Swish was formulated to be gentle enough to use once a week. Our sulfate-free shampoo gives your hair a crisp clean and removes build-up without stripping your hair of moisture.
2. SCALP OIL
Were you looking for the best oil for an itchy scalp? Using scalp oil with lavender and eucalyptus can relieve itchiness. Soothe was designed to help ease the itchiness that may have been caused due by scalp build-up. Its anti-inflammatory properties also work to combat dryness and promote healthy hair growth. Applying such oil to your scalp immediately after washing and a couple of times throughout the week should do the trick.
Prevention of itchy scalp
Reduce your risk for an itchy scalp by washing your hair regularly to remove built-up oils. Wash your hair in warm — but not excessively hot — water to avoid irritating and drying out the scalp.
To reduce allergic reactions, try to avoid using products that contain:
1. Check the ingredients in your hair products
Sensitivity to artificial fragrances (perfume) and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) can lead to itchiness. Synthetic fragrances are used in many products, while sodium lauryl sulfate is often found in shampoos and is the cleansing agent responsible for foaming. Not only can SLS cause itching, but it is also extremely drying to Afro hair, so it’s better to opt for a shampoo that uses a gentler cleansing agent like Cocamidopropyl betaine or Cocamidopropyl hydroxysultaine.
2. Clean your scalp regularly
An itchy scalp may simply be a sign that you need to wash your hair more frequently. The build-up of dirt and pollution can cause itchiness. If you notice your hair is okay for the first few days after cleaning and becomes itchier as time progresses, it’s a good idea to decrease the time between your wash days. We recommend washing your hair every 7-10 days with a sulfate-free shampoo and every two weeks if you are wearing braids.
3. Use a scalp oil
Having a consistent hair routine can make a world of difference. Using a scalp oil with lavender and eucalyptus can relieve itchiness. Applying such oil to your scalp immediately after washing and a couple of times throughout the week should do the trick. Our scalp oil Soothe has been specially formulated to relieve itchiness.
How to relieve dry scalp
Depending on the severity and cause of your dry, itchy scalp, some home remedies may help relieve symptoms. If you suspect you have a health condition that’s causing your dry, itchy scalp, see your doctor for an official diagnosis before trying any of the following:
• Avoid products that can irritate and dry the scalp to the point of it becoming itchy.
• Use shampoos that have anti-inflammatory ingredients such as zinc pyrithione.
• Use moisturizing scalp treatments.
• Use oils that can help relieve scalp dryness and itchiness, such as coconut oil, jojoba oil, tea tree oil, and avocado oil.
• Use a humidifier to help with dryness in the air.
• Use a cool compress on the area to relieve itchiness and pain and to prevent yourself from scratching.
• Is Coconut Oil Good For Itchy Scalp?
Coconut oil can be applied directly to your scalp to help eliminate and prevent dandruff. The hydrating properties of coconut oil can help reduce itchiness and dryness and eliminate flaky, dry skin on the scalp. Start with 1 to 2 tablespoons of coconut oil, and gently rub it in.
• Why Does My Scalp Itch Badly?
Inflammation of the hair follicles or bacterial infection of the scalp can also cause itching. Usually, people with this problem have acne-like bumps or blemishes in the affected areas. Other causes of itchy scalp are uncommon. Inflammatory and hair loss conditions of the scalp are rare but can also cause itching.
• How do you treat dry, Itchy Scalp?
Something as simple as dandruff may be treated using the right shampoo, whereas a skin condition like psoriasis may require prescription medications. The best thing you can do when dealing with a dry and itchy scalp is figuring out what is causing it so you can get the proper treatment.
• What does Psoriasis Look Like?
Scalp psoriasis appears as thick, red, swollen skin patches with silvery-white scales on the top. The edges of the patches are well defined. When scratching the area, the patches flake off easily.
• What is the best Shampoo for a dry, itchy scalp?
Moisturizing shampoos that contain natural and gentle ingredients are the best choice for a dry, itchy scalp.
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