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An irritated scalp may be a sign of eczema. “Eczema” is a term that’s used to describe either a group of conditions or specific forms of those conditions.
Eczema of the scalp can take several forms, including atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis. You may also have a condition known as seborrheic dermatitis, a dermatologic condition that’s often found on the scalp and is more commonly known as dandruff.
It’s possible to have more than one condition at one time.
Symptoms of eczema on the scalp generally include:
- flaking skin
- scaly patches
A few other conditions share symptoms with eczema, including psoriasis, fungal infections, and, as mentioned, seborrheic dermatitis.
With eczema, the scalp may be itchy and scaly in the chronic phase and painful and inflamed during an acute phase. This is also known as an eczema flare.
Atopic dermatitis usually affects young children. Although its symptoms are similar to seborrheic dermatitis, you may find that the affected areas also ooze and weep. Atopic dermatitis generally occurs in other areas of the body, but it’s possible for it to appear on the scalp.
Symptoms of seborrheic dermatitis usually develop during puberty or well into adulthood. When infants develop this condition, it’s commonly known as cradle cap or crib cap. Cradle cap usually goes away on its own by the time the infant reaches 1 year.
Contact dermatitis can occur at any age and appear anywhere on the body. It happens when a foreign object or substance causes irritation or an allergic reaction on the skin. You may also experience a rash or hives with this condition.
Keep reading to learn more about what may be causing your eczema and how to find relief.
Scalp issues are often caused by seborrheic dermatitis. Adults living with this condition may have symptoms come and go throughout their life.
It isn’t clear what causes seborrheic dermatitis, but it may be due in part to:
- hormonal changes
- yeast overgrowth on the skin
You may be more susceptible to seborrheic dermatitis if you:
- have another skin condition, such as acne, rosacea, or psoriasis
- have a preexisting condition affecting your immune system, such as an organ transplant, HIV, or Parkinson’s disease
- take certain medications containing interferon, lithium, or psoralen
- have depression
You may find seborrheic dermatitis occurs at certain times. Triggers for flare-ups include:
- hormone changes
- harsh chemicals
Contact dermatitis, on the other hand, typically develops after your skin comes into contact with a toxic material. For example, the ingredients in certain hair care products, your brush, or even a hair accessory can cause a flare-up.
One study found the most common irritants contributing to contact dermatitis included:
- balsam of Peru
It isn’t clear what causes atopic dermatitis, but genetics and environmental factors may be why. This includes things like heat, sweat, and cold, dry weather.
Treatments for seborrheic dermatitis and other types of scalp conditions will vary based on the type you have. If you know what triggers your condition, you can make certain lifestyle changes to reduce your risk.
But if lifestyle changes and over-the-counter (OTC) medications aren’t enough, contact your healthcare provider. Also contact them if you’re experiencing severe pain, swelling, or other unusual symptoms.
Work with your doctor to determine what’s triggering your flare-ups. In some cases, you may find it beneficial to keep a notebook where you list when you had a flare-up and what activities or environments you were in that day.
For example, you may want to take note of:
- what you ate
- what the weather was like
- whether you were feeling any stress and what it was about
- when you last washed or styled your hair
- what hair products you used
Once you identify your triggers, you can work to avoid them.
Shampoos and other hair products
If your scalp condition isn’t the result of an avoidable irritant or environmental trigger, dandruff shampoo may be beneficial.
Look for shampoos containing:
Try using a dandruff shampoo every other time you wash your hair, and follow the label’s directions. Use regular shampoo on the days you skip the dandruff shampoo.
These products can be drying to the hair. To combat this, concentrate the dandruff shampoo to the scalp area only. If your hair still needs washing, follow up with regular shampoo.
Keep in mind that coal tar may darken lighter hair colors. Coal tar can also make your scalp more sensitive to the sun, so wear a hat when outside.
Once the symptoms have cleared, you may be able to cut back to using the dandruff shampoo just once or twice a week.
Seborrheic and atopic dermatitis can be treated with an OTC or prescription topical corticosteroids.
Try to only use these medications during a flare-up. Extended use may lead to side effects.
For contact dermatitis, you may want to try an antihistamine if the product you encountered caused an allergic reaction. Treating the skin may require a topical corticosteroid. Your doctor may prescribe an oral steroid, like prednisone, if your scalp eczema is severe.
If your scalp has become infected, your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic in topical or oral form.
Reach out to your doctor if your condition worsens or appears infected.
Symptoms of infection include:
- severe itchiness
- new burning sensations
- blistered skin
- fluid drainage
- white or yellow pus
Your doctor will examine your skin, discuss your medical history, and ask about any other symptoms and possible causes. The visit may include tests, too.
You may find the condition isn’t eczema or seborrheic dermatitis, but rather something else, like psoriasis or a fungal infection. You may also have multiple conditions at once.
There are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk for flare-ups.
If you aren’t sure what type of scalp condition you’re experiencing, contact your doctor. They can work with you to identify the type and establish a set of preventive methods tailored to your needs.
Tips for preventing flare-ups
- Learn what factors may contribute to your scalp symptoms, and limit your contact or avoid them entirely.
- Wash your hair with warm — not hot or cold — water. Both hot and cold water can dry out your scalp and cause irritation.
- Use gentle shampoos, conditioners, styling creams, gels, and even hair dye. If you can, opt for fragrance-free versions.
- Talk to your doctor about incorporating stress-reduction techniques, if stress is a trigger. This may mean breathing exercises, meditation, or journaling.
- Avoid scratching if you’re having a flare-up. This can make your symptoms worse.
Although eczema and seborrheic dermatitis can be chronic conditions, there are many options available to successfully manage your symptoms and get relief.
After your initial flare-up is under control, you may go weeks or months without experiencing any symptoms.