Having an itchy scalp can be annoying, especially if you don’t know what’s causing your head to itch. One study found that 25% of the population is affected by an itchy scalp — but according to the NHS, there are dozens of potential causes .
Here, we’ve compiled a list of all the possible causes of an itchy scalp according to the NHS, along with any distinctive symptoms and known treatments for each common scalp problem.
Here are 23 possible causes of an itchy scalp, according to the NHS.
Dry skin is one of the most common reasons for an itchy scalp. Skin dryness can be triggered by several different factors, including sensitivity to:
The best way to reduce itchiness caused by dry skin is to avoid your known triggers. Don’t use shampoos or hair products that contain harsh ingredients, drink plenty of water to keep your skin hydrated, and wear a hat to protect your scalp in hot or cold weather.
Dandruff is a skin condition characterised by scalp skin flaking off into your hair. You may notice white or grey flakes, especially in dark hair.
Dandruff may be caused by another underlying condition, such as a scalp yeast infection, but can also be a symptom of dry skin. Scratching a dry scalp dislodges flakes, leading to dandruff.
You can treat dandruff with over-the-counter medicated shampoos. Look out for these anti-dandruff ingredients:
Scalp psoriasis is an autoimmune condition that causes inflammation and itchiness on the scalp. Like dandruff, it can cause skin flaking. Unlike dandruff, you’ll probably notice skin discolouration too: red or purple patches and white or silver scales.
Psoriasis flare-ups can be triggered by:
Avoiding these triggers may help you manage your flare-ups. But you can also treat psoriasis with topical corticosteroids, emollients, and phototherapy.
Ringworm is a fungal infection also known as tinea capitis. It’s most common in young children, and can easily spread from one person to another. Despite the name, it’s not caused by worms.
Ringworm appears as a raised, scaly rash or black bumpy dots on the scalp. It also causes irritation, itchiness, and patchy hair loss in some cases.
Antifungal medications and creams can help treat ringworm.
Seborrheic dermatitis may look similar to dandruff and psoriasis, but it can also affect the eyebrows, ears, lips, and chin. That means itchiness can impact the face as well as the scalp. In rare cases, seborrheic dermatitis can lead to hair loss.
Risk factors for seborrheic dermatitis include:
There’s no known treatment for seborrheic dermatitis, so managing triggers like weather changes and stress can help you avoid flare-ups.
Eczema can affect any area of the body, including the scalp. It’s often triggered by allergies (see contact dermatitis below), but not always.
Discoid eczema causes circular patches of eczema on the skin, including the scalp.
Like alopecia areata, an autoimmune condition that causes patchy hair loss, you may be more likely to get eczema if you have asthma and allergies.
Moisturising your dry skin patches daily and applying steroid creams to reduce itchiness can minimise the impact of eczema. If your eczema is triggered by allergies, you could also take antihistamines.
Contact dermatitis is a type of eczema triggered by allergies. It’s one of the most common types of eczema, and can cause the skin to become itchy, dry, cracked, and sore.
All kinds of allergies can trigger contact dermatitis, including:
Treat contact dermatitis by:
Inflamed hair follicles can be a significant cause of itchiness on the scalp. This is known as folliculitis, and it’s often associated with bacterial infections, or blocked hair follicles.
Common folliculitis symptoms include:
Mild cases of folliculitis often clear up on their own, but more serious cases may need additional treatments such as:
Prurigo is a condition characterised by extremely itchy spots on the skin. You may be diagnosed with prurigo if you have small itchy spots that don’t appear to have another cause.
Raised itchy bumps are a symptom of nodular prurigo. These bumps are often caused by excessive scratching as a result of another itchy scalp condition, which can make more nodules appear .
Nodular prurigo can’t be cured, but you can manage symptoms with steroid creams and antihistamines. Try not to scratch your skin to avoid triggering the appearance of more nodules.
Actinic prurigo is less common and is caused by sun sensitivity. You may be more likely to get actinic prurigo if family members have it . Wearing sunscreen and protective clothing can prevent flare-ups.
Lichen planopilaris is a type of lichen planus that affects areas where hair grows, such as the scalp. It can make your scalp feel tender, sore, and itchy, especially across the crown of the head.
Lichen planopilaris can also lead to permanent hair loss and scarring on the scalp. So it’s important to seek treatment if you suspect you have lichen planopilaris.
Effective treatments for lichen planopilaris include corticosteroids and antimalarial drugs, both of which can reduce inflammation.
Hives, also known as urticaria, cause itchiness across the body, including on the scalp and face. They are often associated with allergic reactions.
Avoiding known triggers for hives is the best way to prevent it. But if you have a severe case of hives, you may be prescribed menthol cream, steroid tablets, or antihistamines to reduce symptoms.
Head lice is a common cause of scalp itching in children. This parasitic condition is easily spread among children at schools and nurseries.
If your child has head lice, you’ll normally be able to spot small white eggs or black lice in their hair.
Tying long hair back can reduce the chances of your child catching head lice.
If you see head lice or nits (eggs that hatch into lice) in their hair, try a medicated treatment until the lice are gone and itching subsides.
Scabies is caused by a mite laying eggs under the skin and causing an itchy rash that spreads across the body. In most people, the rash doesn’t spread to the scalp, but it can in people with weakened immune systems.
Scabies is infectious, so it needs fast treatment to stop it spreading. See your doctor for recommendations on treating scabies. You can often use the same treatment for your scalp and other areas of the body.
Insects like mosquitoes, spiders, fleas, ants, and wasps can cause itchy stings and bites on the scalp.
Antihistamines and hydrocortisone creams can reduce itching and swelling associated with insect bites.
Try to avoid scratching bites to prevent infection. If your insect bite feels hot or starts to ooze, it may be infected. See your pharmacist or GP for treatments.
Most common in babies and young children, chickenpox causes itchy red spots all over the body, including the scalp. Spots blister soon after developing; these blisters are usually the itchiest stage. Blisters then become scabs that heal over time.
Chickenpox may be accompanied by a high temperature, aches, and loss of appetite. It’s highly contagious, but usually gets better within a couple of weeks without treatment.
If your baby or child has chickenpox, use scratch mitts to protect their skin and stop sores from becoming infected.
Having an overactive thyroid can leave your skin feeling itchy. You might get hives, or just experience a general feeling of itchiness across your head, neck, face, and chest. Other symptoms of an overactive thyroid include:
Itchiness is a known presentation of Grave’s disease, which can lead to an overactive thyroid . It’s not limited to the scalp — you might feel itchy anywhere on the body.
You may be able to treat hyperthyroidism with medication, radioactive iodine treatment, or surgery.
Itchiness on the scalp or elsewhere on the body is a less common symptom of iron deficiency anaemia. If you have anaemia, you’re more likely to experience:
Erythrocytosis (also known as polycythaemia) is a condition characterised by having a high concentration of red blood cells in your blood.
These extra cells make blood thicker, so it can’t travel through your blood vessels as easily. This can make your skin feel itchy and red, especially after bathing or showering in hot water. This can affect your scalp skin, but may also occur elsewhere on your body.
Other symptoms include headaches, blurred vision, high blood pressure, and nosebleeds. In serious cases, it can also cause blood clots.
Erythrocytosis treatments include:
Advanced kidney disease can cause severe dry skin on your scalp and across your body, which typically feels very itchy. This is known as uraemic pruritus or chronic kidney disease-associated pruritus .
You’ll likely have a diagnosis for your kidney problems before you reach this stage, so you should know if the itchiness is related to renal failure. More than 40% of haemodialysis patients have chronic itching, and 50% have general itchiness .
You may be able to treat pruritus separately by using moisturisers or phototherapy. For those with advanced kidney failure, a successful kidney transplant will reduce symptoms of kidney disease-related itching.
Though it’s far from the most common cause, itching can be a symptom of certain types of cancer.
Look out for these symptoms on your scalp or other areas of your body:
It’s important to remember that itchiness of the scalp is more likely to have another less serious cause. But if you’re worried, check in with your GP.
Menopause leads to hormonal changes that often cause itchy skin on the scalp. Lower oestrogen levels can reduce scalp sebum production, leaving your skin dry and itchy .
Hormone changes during and after menopause can also cause hair loss, which is why female pattern hair loss is more common in older women. However, there are many underlying reasons for women’s hair loss, which is why getting a diagnosis is essential. You can then find the right treatment for female hair loss, or a combination of treatments if necessary.
Mild scalp itching in pregnancy is usually associated with hormone changes. However, if you have more severe itching — especially on the hands and feet — this may be a sign of a more serious condition known as intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP).
ICP needs medical attention, so speak to your midwife if you are or might be pregnant and you have very itchy hands, feet, or scalp.
While hair transplants aren’t available on the NHS, it’s still recognised as an effective procedure for restoring hair in those with female or male pattern baldness. But while it’s healing, a hair transplant can cause your scalp to itch.
Ben Stokes’s hair transplant wound healing.
It’s important to avoid scratching your hair grafts while they’re healing, even if they feel very itchy. Scratching your head can dislodge your hair transplant scabs and compromise your hair transplant success.
Other hair loss treatments like Minoxidil can also cause your scalp to itch. If you’re using Minoxidil spray, switch to Minoxidil foam to reduce irritation.
Taking antihistamines as part of your hair transplant aftercare can help relieve the itch while your grafts heal and the feeling subsides.
The NHS offers many different explanations for an itchy scalp. And unfortunately, an itchy scalp isn’t usually associated with hair growth. But self-diagnosing your itch isn’t always the best idea, as it may lead to incorrect or ineffective treatments.
Left untreated, some scalp conditions can lead to hair loss, so it’s important to treat your scalp effectively as soon as you can.
Speak to a trichologist to get a diagnosis for your itchy scalp. The trichology team at the Wimpole Clinic specialises in diagnosing and treating all kinds of scalp conditions.
Book a consultation to learn more about your scalp condition and establish any underlying causes.
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