What causes an itchy scalp?

By: Dr. Michael Araco

Few things can be more bothersome than an itchy scalp. Personally I find it easier to tolerate mild pain, than to have a niggling itch. Next time you find yourself scratching take a moment to consider what might be causing your itchy scalp:

Contact dermatitis

A common cause of rash and itch. It can be either an allergic or irritant condition. The cause may be a new shampoo, soap, hair dye, or hair product - particularly if it contains alcohol. If caused by a product most people can tolerate, it is likely you have the allergic type of dermatitis. Regardless, the mainstay of treatment is to determine the cause and remove it. In severe cases your doctor may prescribe steroid medications. Occasionally, antibiotics are required if the irritated scalp becomes infected.

Seborrheic dermatitis

Also known as dandruff in adults and cradle cap in infants. Seborrheic dermatitis often leads to a dry itchy scalp. The cause of both is simply excess scale produced by the skin. Dandruff is most prevalent in adolescents and gets worse in early adulthood. Cradle cap is most common in the first three months of life, and many babies are affected at one time or other. Nizoral shampoo is a good treatment to try first and is usually on the supermarket shelf. Careful drying, moisturizing and limiting the use of soaps can help prevent recurrence.


Psoriasis is a common skin condition that can cause a red rash on the scalp. Usually the skin becomes thickened with a silvery scaling. Itch can sometimes occur, but it is not usually a feature. Up to four percent of the population suffer from psoriasis - there is thought to be a genetic link. Other areas of the body are usually involved including the knees and elbows and sometimes the skin over the lower back and genitals. Topical preparations, steroid drugs, and ultraviolet light are some of the treatment options.

Head louse

The head louse is a very common cause of itchy scalps in children as it spreads with close contact. Usually the resulting itch is behind the ears and at the back of the head where lice prefer to live. Symptoms include an itchy scalp, visible white colored lice, and possibly red bite marks. Your pharmacist may recommend one or two applications of a permethrin based hair wash. It's also important to wash bedsheets and clothes as the lice can survive a few days without human contact.

Stressed out?

It has been said stress can go to your head. Literally. Work, family, money issues, weather and even our diets can put pressure on our scalps and cause us to scratch. Lifestyle changes, rather than lotions and potions may be required here.

Other causes of an itchy scalp

Less common causes such as eczema, tinea or even lupus may be responsible. It's worth seeing your local doctor if the itch persists to have it checked out.

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