Itchy Scalp

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is an itchy scalp?

An itchy scalp is an inflammatory reaction of the skin underneath the hair on your head. An itchy scalp is a common problem, particularly among adults. An itchy scalp may or may not be associated with a visible rash or broken skin.

The severity, frequency and duration of an itchy scalp depend on the underlying cause. Some causes of an itchy scalp, such as dandruff (seborrheic dermatitis), can be relatively minor. However, an itchy scalp can also be due to more serious conditions, such as infection, inflammation, parasite infestation, autoimmune disorders, and allergies.

In some cases, an itchy scalp can begin suddenly and disappear quickly by itself or with minimal treatment, such as a mild allergic reaction or sensitivity to a new hair product. An itchy scalp can also occur over a relatively long period of time, such as when itching is due to scalp psoriasis.

An itchy scalp can occur by itself or with other symptoms, such as a rash or visible bumps on the scalp and nape of the neck. In addition, excessive scratching of an itchy scalp can introduce bacteria or fungus into the layers of the scalp, resulting in secondary infections. Tell your health care provider about any symptoms that occur with an itchy scalp. This information helps your health care provider diagnose the condition.

An itchy scalp can be caused by a serious underlying condition that requires medical treatment, such as lupus or hypothyroidism. If you have an itchy scalp that is persistent, seek prompt medical care to talk with your medical professional about your symptoms.

What other symptoms might occur with an itchy scalp?

An itchy scalp may occur with other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms can affect the skin and scalp and other body systems in some cases. For example, you may have joint pain if your itchy scalp is caused by psoriatic arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disorder.

Skin symptoms that may occur along with an itchy scalp

An itchy scalp may occur with other scalp and skin-related symptoms including:

  • Blistering
  • Burning
  • Cracked skin on the scalp or skin
  • Hair loss and thinning hair
  • Itchy elbows and knees
  • Pain
  • Pimples or small pustules
  • Rash or marks on the skin
  • Redness, irritation or inflammation
  • Scaling, flaking or cracking of skin
  • Skin discoloration
  • Sores or lesions from scratching
  • Tiny white specs at the base of the hair (lice eggs, nits) or small moving parasites in the hair, eyebrows or eyelashes (head lice)

Other symptoms that may occur along with an itchy scalp

An itchy scalp may occur with symptoms related to body systems other than the skin and scalp including:

What causes an itchy scalp?

The most common cause of an itchy scalp is dandruff, or seborrheic dermatitis, which is believed to be caused by a combination of oily skin and overgrowth of yeast. Environmental and lifestyle factors, such as hair products, acne, stress, and obesity, appear to increase the risk of developing seborrheic dermatitis.

Many other disorders and conditions can lead to an itchy scalp, including inflammatory and autoimmune disorders, infection, allergies, and head lice. Psoriasis is a chronic inflammatory disorder caused by a problem with your immune system, but the exact cause is not known. Bacteria and yeast can infect the skin and hair follicles on your scalp, leading to an intense itch-scratch cycle.

Head lice are tiny insects that feed on blood and lay their eggs on the scalp. Head lice do not lead to serious medical problems, although they are extremely contagious and cause intense itching, which may lead to skin breakdown and possible secondary bacterial infections. An itchy scalp can also be caused by an allergy or sensitivity to hair products, including hair dye and other chemicals.

Possible causes of itchy scalp

An itchy scalp may be caused by a variety of different skin disorders and infections including:

What are the potential complications of an itchy scalp?

In some cases, an itchy scalp can lead to complications, especially if there is severe scratching that leads to breakdown of the skin of the scalp. Scratching can introduce bacteria or fungus into the layers of skin on the scalp resulting in infections. Complications include:

  • Cellulitis (infection of the skin and surrounding tissues caused by a growing bacterial or fungal infection)

  • Hair loss, thinning hair, or bald patches

  • Open sores and lesions

Complications of underlying causes of an itchy scalp can also occur. You can best reduce the risk of complications of an itchy scalp and its underlying causes by following the treatment plan developed by you and your health care provider.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 3
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Itchy Scalp or Neck. Skinsight.
  2. Seborrheic dermatitis. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine.