16 Reasons You May Have An Itchy Scalp And What You Can Do About It

You're going about your day happily, only to feel a very unpleasant sensation ... your scalp is suddenly super itchy, and you can't help but scratch it. No one wants to experience this, and giving in to that itch (especially in public) can make you feel uncomfortable and self-conscious. And depending on the condition, it could be incredibly painful and affect your quality of life.


Various things can cause itchy scalps, and some are more serious skin conditions that need to be addressed by a medical professional. In contrast, other itches are caused by something as simple as not washing your hair enough or wearing the wrong accessories. This can result in a breeding ground for bacteria; you don't need us to tell you why that's not good. But, when armed with the knowledge of your condition and what could be triggering it, you can better address it and say goodbye to that itch, hopefully for good!

You may need to switch up your hair products

If you've recently tried a new shampoo or conditioner and found that your scalp has become itchy, this could be the cause. It's hard to believe that something as simple as using the wrong hair products could cause an allergic reaction, but many ingredients within them can harm your scalp, especially if you've been known to have sensitive skin.


It's recommended to stop using the products immediately if you notice an abnormal reaction. If the new products were the cause, you should notice a difference within a week. If not, and if you are ever unsure, it's best to seek the help of a professional. "This condition is known as contact dermatitis, and sometimes it can be tricky to determine exactly what is causing it," dermatologist Alvin Coda, MD, told Scripps. "A board-certified dermatologist can do a patch test to help identify potential allergens, so you know which ingredients to avoid." 

Dandruff could be the offender

Dandruff is a common condition that is caused by an oil buildup and results in an itchy scalp. You can tell you have it if you've noticed white flakes on your scalp or a buildup on your clothing (especially after scratching your head).


"Your body's inflammatory response to an overgrowth of yeast causes the itching and flaking associated with these conditions. Yeast normally lives on the scalp and other hairy areas of the body, but the problem arises when there's too much yeast present," dermatologist Melissa Piliang, MD, told Cleveland Clinic. Because of how common dandruff is, many products are available to treat it.

Your condition could be cleared with a shampoo containing special ingredients to target the yeast. Still, if you do not notice a difference, it may be best to visit the dermatologist to receive a stronger dosage and a proper diagnosis. A more resistant type of dandruff is called seborrheic dermatitis, which can also cause inflammation.


Atopic dermatitis (aka eczema) could be causing inflammation

Atopic dermatitis is more commonly referred to as eczema and is a chronic condition that can develop from childhood. There are several ways to detect eczema, including dryness on the skin, discoloration, and itchiness. In severe cases, it may also be bleeding or oozing. It's not only concentrated on one area and is often found on the elbows, knees, and neck, but eczema can also appear on the scalp.


As for what causes eczema? The list is long and diverse but includes hormonal changes, excessive sweat, and a reaction to chemicals and other ingredients found in products like shampoos, lotions, and soaps. To know how to treat eczema (there is no cure, but you can manage symptoms and get them under control), it is helpful to determine the triggers. This condition also needs to be addressed by a dermatologist for the best results.

Check if you have diabetes

You may not realize it, but one of the potential side effects of diabetes could be an itchy scalp, which is caused by increased blood sugar levels. Although it is more common for diabetes to cause itchy skin, specifically on the lower legs or the hands and feet, the scalp can also be affected. Those with diabetes are also at an increased risk of skin conditions, which could include fungal infections.


This type of itching is much more challenging to treat than simply purchasing an over-the-counter cream or shampoo. You will need to contact a medical professional to be correctly diagnosed. If the itch has been caused by diabetes, you'll be informed as to how best to treat it, which could include a change in lifestyle to reduce your blood sugar levels. You may also be prescribed lotions that can be safely used by those with diabetes.

Check your scalp for lice

If you've been scratching your scalp more than usual because of discomfort associated with itching, head lice could be the reason. Unfortunately, head lice are an all too common problem and are easily spread by close contact with other people. Though head lice are commonly thought of as a childhood problem, they can be present on adults, too. But if you do have lice, don't worry; this is not a sign of dirty hair, and many affordable treatments exist to solve the issue.


The lice are easy enough to detect because the eggs will be attached to the hair strands. But removing them is difficult, so you will need to use a special comb in combination with over-the-counter treatments. You must take care to follow the instructions, dermatologist Melissa Piliang, MD, told Cleveland Clinic. "Each head lice shampoo formula has its own treatment protocol ... You must follow the instructions on the box exactly to get rid of the lice."

Do you eat too much spicy food?

We know the importance of eating a balanced diet and how it can affect our overall health, but spicy foods could affect your body in ways you don't realize. If you eat a lot of spices or foods that contain specific chemical compounds (like capsaicin) and have noticed an itchy scalp, you could be experiencing an allergic reaction. It may be time to say goodbye to that delicious curry and ditch the habanero and cayenne peppers.


Researcher Barry Green, Ph.D., of John B. Pierce Laboratory, explains how it happens: "The answer hinges on the fact that spicy foods excite the receptors in the skin that normally respond to heat. Those receptors are pain fibers, technically known as polymodal nociceptors," Green told Scientific American. "They respond to temperature extremes and to intense mechanical stimulation, such as pinching and cutting; they also respond to certain chemical influences. The central nervous system can be confused or fooled when these pain fibers are stimulated by a chemical, like that in chile peppers, which triggers an ambiguous neural response ..."

Stress can manifest in unusual ways

Stress affects the body in different ways, and when you are going through a particularly difficult time, you might find yourself itching your skin more often. A stress rash is not only focused on the scalp (but it is common to experience it there) and can be found in various places of the body.


"A stress rash is any skin flare-up that stress can trigger," dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD, told Health. "If you're under a lot of stress, you can get hives, for example, or you could get an exacerbation of any skin rash that you already have." The appearance of a skin rash can vary, but it often appears as hives with red patches on the body that are raised or swollen. The good news is that stress rashes are not considered particularly serious and should clear with over-the-counter products like antihistamines or topical steroids.

Could nerves be causing the itch?

Nerve issues may be one of the most challenging causes of an itchy scalp to detect because, unlike conditions like dandruff, which is visible by white flakes, or head lice, where you can see the eggs, there is very little to see when it comes to nerve problems. Once it's determined that the nerves on your scalp are causing the itching, it's not easy to pinpoint which neurologic condition is responsible. It could be a range of problems, so it is important that the issue be addressed by a medical professional (and you may have to be referred to a neurologist).


"No one really knows why the nerve roots are irritated or why it feels good to scratch, other than it makes them feel temporarily good and that seems to be psychological almost," cosmetic dermatologist Michele Green, MD, told Women's Health. Ruling out other causes could help you get to a nerve issue diagnosis. 

Human mites can have a very unpleasant reaction

The presence of human mites, also called scabies, can result in a slew of medical issues, including watering eyes, itchy nose, and nasal congestion. They can also be the cause of an itchy scalp. These mites will lay their eggs in the upper layer of the skin, which could include the scalp. This will result in a rash that can be uncomfortably itchy.


But how do you get human mites? They spread through close contact with other infected individuals, but symptoms can take weeks to appear (around four to eight weeks in previously unaffected people). This means you could be infecting other people without even realizing it.

Treating this condition often involves the medication permethrin, but it can be challenging to get rid of, as dermatologist Ife J. Rodney explained to Women's Health, "You need to see a dermatologist ... Over-the-counter treatments don't usually clear this up."

Anxiety may be to blame

You may not have a physical condition that is causing your scalp to itch. Instead, it could result from psychogenic itching. This is the term given to itching that is caused by anxiety. You may find that experiencing more anxiety (not just stress) than average can manifest in unusual ways, including presenting itself as a skin condition like hives or eczema. This can occur anywhere on the body, including the scalp.


The reason for this is complicated but involves how anxiety impacts the nervous system. "This can affect your nervous system and cause sensory symptoms like burning or itching of the skin, with or without visible signs," dermatologist Enrizza P. Factor, MD, told Prevention. "You can experience this sensation anywhere on your skin, including your arms, legs, face, and scalp."

Treating anxiety-related itching can be more complicated because you must determine the triggers. But creams are often used to reduce the symptoms.

Go easy on the hair products and hot showers (they could be causing dry scalp)

Not to be confused with dandruff, dry scalp is a condition that can be caused by the lack of moisture on the scalp (there are noticeable differences between dandruff and dry scalp). The cause of dry scalp includes using the wrong hair products, as ingredients found in some shampoos and conditioners may cause irritation and dryness. If you are using too many products and not washing your hair frequently, this could also result in a build-up.


Another thing to consider is the temperature of your shower. Hot showers may exacerbate existing skin conditions or cause dry scalp. "Any skin condition characterized by a defective skin barrier can be worsened by a hot shower ... [It] strips the skin of sebum, the healthy fats and oils necessary for skin health, and dehydrates the skin," dermatologist Shari Marchbein told Allure.

To give your scalp extra care, hair treatments could be a great way to bring back the moisture and hydrate it.

Itchy red spots may be hives

Hives can appear anywhere on the body, including the scalp, and are caused by an allergic reaction. This could result from several things, including products you use, stress, animals, or food. You can tell the reaction is hives by the appearance of red spots, which could be swollen and are often itchy.


Hives can appear all over the body, including on your scalp (although it may be harder to detect here as you cannot easily see your scalp). "A hive lesion doesn't usually last much longer than 24 hours, whereas things like bug bites, which are easily confused with hives, can last several days," professor of dermatology, Adam Friedman, MD, told Everyday Health, adding, "And they often appear without any warning."

Hives can disappear without treatment but are often treated with an oral antihistamine. However, you could be diagnosed with chronic hives in more persistent cases. These will last for more than six weeks and require specialized treatment.

The wrong accessories could leave you itching

Do you have a favorite hat you wear every day, come rain or shine? We understand the importance of accessories and how they can pull together and complement an outfit. They are also great for protecting the scalp and hair from harmful rays, but if you feel an itch after wearing your hat, this could be your warning to let your scalp breathe more often. Wearing accessories like a hat regularly could result in a build-up of moisture and humidity which could cause discomfort and an itchy scalp. It could also be a reaction to the hat's fabric, as some materials may irritate the skin. 


If you notice itching, wash your hair to remove the sweat. It could be this simple, or you may need an over-the-counter shampoo. Scratching your scalp is never pleasant, but the issue can be easily resolved and isn't considered dangerous. 

Why is your scalp more itchy at bedtime?

What is better than getting into bed after a long day? Except, this is not true for everyone because the itchiness on your scalp may be more noticeable at night. Several things, including sweat, skin temperature, stress and anxiety, and hormonal changes (including menopause and pregnancy), could cause this. Experiencing an itch during the night is called nocturnal pruritus and can have a negative outcome as it affects your sleep quality.


You need to address the issues to help ease the discomfort of your itching scalp. Once you have determined the cause, you are better equipped to find the solution, which could include prescriptions, a specialized shampoo, a cooler bedroom, or coping mechanisms for when your mind is too active, and your stress levels are increased. You may also want to invest in good-quality sheets and pillowcases and purchase a humidifier to improve air quality and reduce dryness.

You could be overwashing or underwashing your hair

Overwashing your hair could be stripping it from its natural oils and moisture, making your hair and scalp dry and prone to damage. It can be challenging to find the right balance for how often you should wash your hair (and this will depend on factors like your texture and lifestyle). It is often recommended not more than once or twice a week. For some people, this should be more frequent, and not washing your hair could be causing an oil build-up, ingrown hairs, and even an uncomfortably itchy scalp.


"The area where the hair emerges from the scalp can start to feel sore from the buildup of excess dead skin cells, and there's dandruff," Dove Hair Expert and dermatologist Dr. Francesca Fusco told InStyle, adding, "If dandruff gets worse and the skin becomes inflamed, the inflammation in the hair follicle can translate to feeling a little tender."

Always dry your hair at night

If you often have a quick shower before bed and don't think twice about waiting for your hair to dry, you're not alone. Many of us would never think that going to bed with wet hair could be the cause of an itchy scalp, but it could be. The problem with sleeping before the hair is dry is that the damp environment is the ideal breeding ground for the fungus Malassezia globosa.


"Certain bacteria and fungi thrive in warm, moist environments and so will proliferate on scalp skin if it stays damp for hours," dermatologist Noëlle Sherber told Allure. "Most commonly, a type of yeast called Malassezia can accumulate on the scalp and cause flaking, which can be mistaken for dandruff."

This is reason enough to ensure your hair is dry every time, but other drawbacks include breakage and split ends because the hair is more fragile when wet.

Should you see a dermatologist or try an over-the-counter product instead?

Knowing when to see a dermatologist or whether to continue with shop-bought treatments can be a dilemma. Common conditions like dandruff and head lice can often be treated with over-the-counter products. You can try one of the many shampoos on the market to target these issues, and they will likely resolve soon after.


If, however, you are unsure of what your condition is or it persists, then it is a good idea to seek the advice of a medical professional who can prescribe a specific treatment like a topical steroid, or perhaps you need a lifestyle change, more frequent washing, or a better diet.

A good rule to remember is that if the itching lasts longer than six weeks or does not improve, you need to see a professional. This must happen sooner if you're experiencing extreme pain and discomfort or any other symptoms besides your itchy scalp.

Home remedies may be able to do the job

Many people seek help from a professional or use special, medicated creams and shampoos to help resolve issues like an itchy scalp. But what about home remedies? Could these make a difference?

Apple cider vinegar is celebrated for its antibacterial properties and is used to treat multiple ailments. This could include treatment for a dry and itching scalp. Another product you may want to try is coconut oil, which contains lauric acid that may help with eczema and head lice. Or you could try tea tree oil, which is readily available and believed to have many great benefits, including relieving an itch and helping to treat dandruff and head lice.


If you are drawn to more natural treatments and your condition is not causing you pain, you may want to try home remedies first. But always research the product beforehand to prevent an allergic reaction, and be aware that it could worsen the condition.