Causes of scalp itch

By: Dr. Michael Araco

Few things can be more bothersome than scalp itch.  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 scalp itch:

Contact dermatitis 

Contact dermatitis is a common cause of rash and scalp 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 

This is also called dandruff in adults and cradle cap in infants.  Seborrheic dermatitis often leads to a dry scalp itch.  The cause of both dandruff and cradle cap 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.  Carefully drying the scalp well, 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.  Scalp 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 lice causes scalp itch 

The head louse is a very common cause of scalp itch 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 scalp itch, 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.

Scalp itch and 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 scalp itch 

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


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