Itchy Scalp Causes and Treatments

Man scratches head as viewed from behind.
Skin Problems Image Gallery Itchy scalp in adults is often caused by dandruff. See more pictures of skin problems.
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An itchy scalp is a common ailment, one that may be the result of a skin condition or not. Beyond the discomfort of the itchiness, an itchy scalp can cause several problems. For some people, the condition can be embarrassing. It might be socially unacceptable scratch one's head in public, and the fear of unattractive flakes in the hair or on the shoulders can make some uncomfortable and self-conscious.

A common cause of itchy scalp for adults is dandruff. Typically caused by a number of skin conditions, including seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema and other factors, dandruff refers to the characteristic flakes of itchy, oily dead skin that can fall from the scalp. It's a symptom of numerous scalp disorders, including scalp fungus, eczema, psoriasis and other causes [source: Mayo Clinic]. Dandruff also can be mild or extremely severe. In mild cases, some simple lifestyle changes can eliminate the problem; extreme cases, on the other hand, may require some treatment.


In children, an itchy scalp is often the sign of a different condition altogether. As many parents can probably attest, an infestation of head lice is a common childhood disease that spreads easily. The scientific name, Pediculosis capitis, describes the tiny parasite that feeds on blood from the victim's scalp. The scalp itches because the saliva from the pests causes an allergic reaction [source: Mayo Clinic]. Children are also likely to get scalp ringworm, another contagious condition that causes itchiness.

Some scalp ailments aren't just itchy -- they can hurt due to painfully tender spots or a burning sensation in places. Sometimes the itchiness can be so severe that the sufferer breaks the skin. When that happens, there's a risk that the open wounds will get infected and lead to further problems. An itchy scalp can also be so uncomfortable that the victim has trouble sleeping. Another potential consequence is hair loss, although it's usually temporary.

See the next page to learn how to lower your odds of falling victim to some types of itchy scalp.


Causes of Itchy Scalp

Itchy scalp due to dandruff can have many causes. For example, how often you wash your hair can lead to the condition. Infrequent washing can cause a buildup of oil and skin cells and lead to dandruff flakes. Hair that's washed too often, on the other hand, can also lead to itchy scalp, because the oil that protects the scalp gets stripped away. Cold weather and the dry indoor air can also lead to a dry scalp [source: Mayo Clinic]. Stress can affect dandruff, too. For instance, it can cause conditions like seborrheic dermatitis, which is characterized by an oily, waxy scalp and white or yellowish-brown flakes, to flare up [source: American Academy of Dermatology].

One major contributor to itchy scalp is the skin condition called psoriasis. Caused by a malfunction in the body's immune system where overactive white blood cells mistakenly heal healthy skin cells, psoriasis can lead to a buildup of itchy, red, swollen patches on the body. The malfunction may have its roots in both genes and the environment [source: Mayo Clinic].


Unlike lice and despite its name, scalp ringworm is not caused by a small pest. It's a mold-like fungal infection and related to athlete's foot and jock itch. The name comes from its resulting round patches of baldness or scaliness [source: Mayo Clinic]. Another fungus, a yeast-like one known malassezia, can cause dandruff. Many people have this fungus but experience no problems. For others, some additional factors, including an oily scalp, stress, hormones or illness, may play a part in turning the fungus from a benign presence to an issue. For example, people with Parkinson's disease or those recovering from a heart attack or stroke are more susceptible to dandruff [source: Mayo Clinic].

Sometimes an itchy scalp will heal over time -- an infant's cradle cap or a sunburned scalp, for example, tend to go away after a while. Some itchy scalp conditions can be resolved easily with a simple change of daily habits. Other problems require medical intervention. Read on to find out when you should see a doctor.


Itchy Scalp Treatments

The right treatment to soothe that itchy scalp depends, of course, on the cause.

The first line of defense against most itchy scalp conditions will be an at-home remedy such as a shampoo. Often, the success rate is high, but stubborn situations will require medical advice and prescription treatments. For example, folliculitis, an infection of a hair follicle, might be so mild that it clears up in a few days without any treatment whatsoever. In other cases, a doctor may need to prescribe an antibiotic or antifungal medication.


Ringworm always requires medical attention, but lice can often be eliminated with over-the-counter remedies. Moreover, treatment for ringworm may last six weeks or more. The usual treatment for ringworm is an oral antifungal medication in liquid, tablet or granular form that is sprinkled on food. Three approved ringworm medications are Grifulvin V, Gris-Peg and Lamasil [source: Mayo Clinic]. In some cases, over-the-counter medications won't do the trick for lice, and prescription lotions or shampoos are necessary. These medications must be prescribed with care, because they have potentially serious side effects [source: Mayo Clinic].

Some cases of psoriasis can be treated by over-the-counter medications. If those are not effective, a doctor initially will prescribe a topical medication that you apply to the scalp instead of the hair. If that isn't successful, the next step is light therapy. Both non-laser and laser treatments can be used. One example of laser therapy is an excimer laser. It treats patches of psoriasis without harming unaffected areas. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also approved a number of medications for psoriasis, which may be injected, infused or swallowed [source: American Academy of Dermatology].

Over-the-counter shampoos often work to clear up dandruff. However, if these shampoos don't deliver results after several weeks of use, a prescription shampoo or steroid lotion might be required. Read on to learn more about some home remedies for dandruff and other itchy scalp conditions.


Home Remedies for Itchy Scalp

If you should see flakes of dandruff on your hair and clothes, don't panic. First, try to determine the cause. Contact dermatitis, a sensitivity to products or dyes, may be the problem -- if this is the issue, simply use a different product. In other cases, cutting down on the usage of a product might be all that is required. Is your dandruff caused by too frequent or infrequent washings? Again, all you usually need to do is to make a slight adjustment in daily hygiene habits.

If flakes and flecks don't seem to be a reaction to a hair product or a question of how often you wash your hair, start to explore shampoo choices. You can find different types of medication in a variety of dandruff shampoos:


  • zinc pyrithione (Selsun Salon and Head & Shoulders)
  • coal tar (Neutrogena T/Gel)
  • salicylic acid (Ionil T)
  • selenium sulfide (Selsun Blue)
  • ketoconazole (Nizoral) [source: Mayo Clinic]

Over-the-counter dandruff shampoos can be used to treat seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis and the general instances of dandruff. Different cases respond to different types of shampoo, and experimentation may be the only way to find out what works for a particular case. Some people find that using one type of shampoo one day and another the next time is effective. To maximize the chance of success, leave the shampoo on for the recommended amount of time. A healthy diet and less stress may also help bring positive results.

Lice can usually be eliminated with over-the-counter insecticide shampoos such as Rid or Nix. For a child with lice who is under the age of two, or for people who would rather avoid chemicals, doctors recommend using a nit comb on wet hair. This careful procedure needs to be repeated every few days for about two weeks.

In some unfortunate cases, an itchy scalp can lead to hair loss. Read on to find out some things you can do to reduce your chances of losing hair when you have scalp psoriasis.


Itchy Scalp and Hair Loss

A characteristic of ringworm is its round patches of broken-off hair. The patches may look like they have dots, because the hair often breaks off near the scalp and leaves a bit of stubble. If there are no complications, hair lost because of ringworm will grow back.

In some instances, ringworm can result in an inflammation called a kerion. A kerion is a painful bump with a thick yellow crust. The spongy bumps may ooze pus, and the victim may experience a fever and swollen lymph nodes, too. Kerion is most frequently a complication of ringworm in young children, but it's rarely seen in anyone older than elementary school age. The side effect can lead to scarring and permanent hair loss, so it's important to seek medical attention if the problem is suspected. In addition to the antifungal topical medications for ringworm, a doctor may prescribe an antibiotic and an oral corticosteroid to reduce swelling [source: Skinsight].


Psoriasis can also lead to hair loss, but it doesn't come from the psoriasis itself. Psoriasis-related hair lost can be a result of too much scratching, which can pull on the hair. Second, hair loss may result if the sufferer is too forceful in removing the psoriasis scales. Gentle treatment -- brushing and combing rather than picking -- is the best way to deal with the thick scales. Moreover, some psoriasis treatments can be too harsh for some people. The harshness can stem from the product itself or how it's used. Finally, stress is a factor in psoriasis-related hair loss. It may ease a victim's stress to know that psoriasis-related hair loss is usually a temporary problem [source: American Academy of Dermatology].

Modern medicine can do a great deal to bring relief from itchy scalp and minimize the chance of permanent hair loss. For lots more information, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Seborrheic Dermatitis." Dec. 7, 2006. (Sept. 25, 2009)
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Understanding Scalp Psoriasis May Head Off Hair Loss." Aug. 8, 2007. (Sept. 26, 2009)
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "What is Scalp Psoriasis?" Sept. 9, 2008. (Sept. 25, 2009)
  • MedlinePlus. "Hair Problems." Aug. 24, 2009. (Sept. 28, 2009)
  • MedlinePlus. "Tinea Capitis." Oct. 3, 2008. (Sept. 27, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Dandruff." Nov. 22, 2008. (Sept. 25, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Head Lice." 6/6/09 (Accessed 9/25/09)
  • Skinsight. "Itchy Scalp or Neck." (Accessed 9/25/09)
  • Skinsight. "Kerion." 12/22/08 (Accessed 9/28/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Psoriasis." 4/10/09 (Accessed 9/27/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Ringworm (Scalp)." 1/30/09 (Accessed 9/27/09)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Scalp Psoriasis vs. Seborrheic Dermatitis: What's the Difference?" 10/19/07 (Accessed 9/25/09)
  • Skinsight. "Itchy Scalp or Neck." (Accessed 9/25/09)
  • Skinsight. "Kerion." 12/22/08 (Accessed 9/28/09)