5 Surprising Facts About Itchy Scalp

Chapped lips are a pain, and a runny nose is annoying. An itchy scalp is another common ailment, but one whose cause can be a little harder to determine.

It isn't considered good manners to scratch your head in public, and no one wants to look in the mirror and see skin flakes all over their shirt. Some scalp ailments aren't just itchy -- they're painful. Certain skin conditions can cause scalp tenderness or burning, and scratching too hard can lead to open wounds that are vulnerable to infection. It's also tough to get a good night's sleep when an itch is driving you nuts.


What causes an itchy scalp? And how can you make it stop? See the next page to get started.

Dandruff Is a Symptom, Not a Condition

If you're an adult, there's a good chance your itchy scalp is resulting in dandruff -- oily, dead skin flakes that fall from your scalp. Some cases of dandruff are mild and can be fixed by simple changes to your hygiene regimen. Infrequent hair washing, for example, lets oil and dead skin cells accumulate, which can result in flakes, while overwashing can strip away oils and cause itchiness.

There are also several skin conditions that can cause dandruff, including seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis and eczema. A new hair washing routine won't do the trick in these cases -- a trip to a dermatologist to discuss treatment is a better bet.


Match Treatment to Your Symptoms

ID'ing the cause of your itchy scalp is crucial to finding the right treatment. What works for mild dandruff isn't going to be effective on a serious skin condition. Let's take a look at the possibilities:

  • Contact dermatitis. If your skin is sensitive to certain ingredients or dyes, your solution is simple: Switch products.
  • Scalp psoriasis. Scalp psoriasis is caused by a malfunctioning immune system. Its hallmark is red, scaly patches.
  • Scalp ringworm. A fungal infection related to athlete's foot, scalp ringworm results in scaly or bald patches Mayo Clinic].
  • Malassezia. Ringworm isn't the only fungus that infests the scalp. A yeast-like organism called malassezia can cause dandruff, too.

In children, an itchy scalp is often the sign of head lice, a common childhood disease that spreads easily. The parasites feed on blood, and an allergic reaction to their saliva is what causes the itch [source: Mayo Clinic].


Stroll the Shampoo Aisle

The answer to your itchy scalp may be at the nearest drugstore. Dandruff shampoos, which can also treat some cases of seborrheic dermatitis and scalp psoriasis, have different active ingredients. You may have to try a few to find the one that works -- or even alternate between them. Some of your choices include:

  • 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]

You can usually get rid of lice with over-the-counter insecticide shampoos (pediculicides) such as Rid or Nix.


Don't Hesitate to Call the Doctor

In some cases, shampoo isn't going to do the trick. If your itchy scalp proves stubborn, make an appointment with a health care professional. For example, if Rid or Nix didn't finish the job with head lice, there are also prescription remedies (Sklice and Ulesfia) that can kill the parasites.

Psoriasis treatment progresses in stages. A doctor may start with a topical medication that goes on the scalp. The next step is light therapy, either with lasers or without. Excimer lasers can treat plaques without harming the surrounding skin. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also approved several medications for psoriasis -- some are injected, while others are infused or simply swallowed [source: American Academy of Dermatology].


Ringworm treatment can take awhile -- six weeks or more. The usual fix is an oral antifungal medication, such as Grifulvin V, Gris-Peg or Lamasil, that can be sprinkled on food.

Hair Loss Is a Possibility

The worst-case scenario for itchy scalp is a condition that results in hair loss.

Ringworm is often marked by round patches of broken-off hair, but if there are no complications, it will grow back. In some instances, ringworm can result in a painful bump with a thick yellow crust, known as a kerion. These can cause scarring and permanent hair loss, but they are rarely found in kids older than 10.


Psoriasis-related hair loss, which is usually temporary, can happen if there's too much scratching or if scales are removed too vigorously. Gentle treatment is best when it comes to the product and how it's used.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Seborrheic Dermatitis." Dec. 7, 2006. (Sept. 25, 2009)http://www.skincarephysicians.com/eczemanet/seborrheic_dermatitis.html
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Understanding Scalp Psoriasis May Head Off Hair Loss." Aug. 8, 2007. (Sept. 26, 2009)http://www.skincarephysicians.com/psoriasisnet/scalp_psoriasis.html
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "What is Scalp Psoriasis?" Sept. 9, 2008. (Sept. 25, 2009) http://www.skincarephysicians.com/psoriasisnet/scalp_psoriasis_overview.html
  • MedlinePlus. "Hair Problems." Aug. 24, 2009. (Sept. 28, 2009) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/hairproblems.html
  • MedlinePlus. "Tinea Capitis." Oct. 3, 2008. (Sept. 27, 2009) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000878.htm
  • Mayo Clinic. "Dandruff." Nov. 22, 2008. (Sept. 25, 2009)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/dandruff/DS00456
  • Mayo Clinic. "Head Lice." 6/6/09 (Accessed 9/25/09)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/head-lice/DS00953
  • Skinsight. "Itchy Scalp or Neck." (Accessed 9/25/09) http://www.skinsight.com/diseaseGroups/itchyScalpNeck.htm
  • Skinsight. "Kerion." 12/22/08 (Accessed 9/28/09)http://www.skinsight.com/child/kerion.htm
  • Mayo Clinic. "Psoriasis." 4/10/09 (Accessed 9/27/09) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/psoriasis/DS00193/DSECTION=causes
  • Mayo Clinic. "Ringworm (Scalp)." 1/30/09 (Accessed 9/27/09) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/ringworm/DS00892
  • Mayo Clinic. "Scalp Psoriasis vs. Seborrheic Dermatitis: What's the Difference?" 10/19/07 (Accessed 9/25/09)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/scalp-psoriasis/AN01177
  • Skinsight. "Itchy Scalp or Neck." (Accessed 9/25/09) http://www.skinsight.com/diseaseGroups/itchyScalpNeck.htm
  • Skinsight. "Kerion." 12/22/08 (Accessed 9/28/09)http://www.skinsight.com/child/kerion.htm