An itchy scalp is a common problem causing frequent scratching. Although it doesn’t typically indicate anything severe, it can be a symptom of an underlying condition like head lice or an allergy.
Sometimes, an itchy scalp (scalp pruritus) is accompanied by visible signs, such as scabbed or flaking skin. Other times, your scalp can itch without any skin changes.
Below you’ll find out what might be causing your itchy scalp, along with how to treat and prevent it.
The most common cause of an itchy scalp is seborrheic dermatitis, better known as dandruff. In infants, the condition is called cradle cap or crib cap.
This type of dermatitis often occurs in areas of sebaceous or oil-secreting glands, including the scalp and face. If the glands become inflamed, you can experience:
- reddened skin
- yellow or white scales
While doctors don’t know the exact cause of seborrheic dermatitis, some potential causes include:
- a yeast overgrowth on the skin
- seasonal changes
- hormonal fluctuations or stress
Scalp itchiness may simply be the result of a sensitive scalp. However, it can also indicate an underlying medical condition.
Potential causes of an itchy scalp include:
- shingles (herpes zoster)
- allergic reactions to medications
- an anxiety disorder
- contact dermatitis, or irritation due to something your scalp came in contact with, such as a new shampoo
- discoid lupus
- head lice
- hot comb hair loss, due to frequent heat styling
- migraine headaches
- scalp psoriasis
- scarring alopecia
- ringworm, or tinea capitis
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
If the itchiness doesn’t go away in a few days and is accompanied by hair loss, pain, sores, or intense itching, see your doctor.
An itchy scalp due to a fungal infection, lice, and some other conditions won’t go away without medical treatment.
In addition to a physical exam, your doctor may take a scraping of your scalp. In a lab, skin cells can be tested for the presence of fungi, bacteria, or lice. However, most doctors can diagnose the cause of your itchy scalp through a careful examination and review of your medical history.
Treatment for your itchy scalp depends on its cause. For example, dandruff is treated through frequent hair washing with special topical agents. Each scalp medication works in a unique way, such as reducing oil on the scalp or killing fungus.
Some medications that might be used to treat dandruff include:
- antifungal creams
- keratolytics, such as salicylic acid or coal tar
- pyrithione zinc
- topical steroids
Head lice requires medical treatments, such as washing the hair with a pediculicide or using a medicine that kills lice. A fine-tooth comb can remove lice eggs (nits) while the medication kills active lice.
In addition to these treatments, people living in close contact may need preventive treatment. All clothes, bedding, and towels that came in contact with the infected person must be washed or dry cleaned in temperatures greater than 130°F.
If your itchy scalp is due to an allergic reaction, you should refrain from using the product that caused the reaction and speak to a doctor if the reaction is severe.
There are multiple other causes of itchy scalp not covered here. The best way to find out what’s causing your itchy scalp is to have a medical professional take a look at your 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:
Avoid physical contact with people with head lice to prevent spreading lice. This includes refraining from sharing: