What Causes Itchy Scalp and What You Can Do About It
An itchy scalp can be due to dry, flaking skin or oily dandruff, a fungal infection or a pesky creepy-crawler, an allergic reaction or even an auto-immune disease. Depending on the condition it can escalate from mere itching to inflamed rashes, damaged hair as well as balding. This is why it is important to understand the underlying cause and get timely treatment and relief.
Here are 7 common reasons that can cause an itchy scalp:
Did you know? Malassezia is a yeast that is commonly present on all scalp types. However, an overgrowth of the yeast-like fungus is what results in dandruff. The itching and flaking of the scalp is our body’s response to the over-presence of yeast. Generally, oily skin types are more affected, as Malassezia yeast flourishes in sebum. Dandruff, being one of the most common causes of an itchy scalp, has a number of treatment options available.
Over-the-counter anti-dandruff shampoos containing active ingredients like ketoconazole, selenium oxide, zinc pyrithione or coal tar help to control yeast and fight flakes. Home remedies like coconut oil, apple cider vinegar or aloe vera gel can also get rid of dry, white flakes.
#2: Seborrheic Dermatitis (Seborrhea)
Seborrheic Dermatitis is a severe form of dandruff that includes inflammation of the hair follicles in addition to itching and flaking. Seborrheic is oily skin and dermatitis means skin reaction. Meaning that any area of oily skin covered in hair follicles can be afflicted with the tell-tale flakes of dead skin, including your eyebrows or face! Thankfully, Seborrhea is a common condition and can be effectively treated.
Severe cases can be tackled by prescription-strength steroid creams like hydrocortisone and fluocinolone, or medicated shampoos.
#3: Contact Dermatitis (Allergic Reactions)
Contact Dermatitis is a common skin reaction caused by contact with an allergen, irritant or sensitiser present in certain products like shampoos, hair sprays and dyes, or your food. Some scalp types are more sensitive to known allergens or irritants like nickel, latex, fragrances, ingredients in make-up or paraphenylenediamine (PPD) in some hair dyes. Sensitisers are substances which your skin slowly becomes sensitive to over time, such as an ingredient in a shampoo you’ve been using for years. Foods, such as processed sugar, peanuts and soy products can increase the occurrence of fungal infections and inflammation.
Our skin acts as a barrier against most allergens, irritants and sensitisers, but in case they get absorbed into our skin, our immune system triggers inflammation to isolate and kill the dangerous substance. This results in a red, itchy scalp.
Product build-up from hair-styling products, especially those that contain silicones, can also be the cause of an itchy, inflamed scalp. If not washed out properly, product build-up locks in allergens, irritants and sensitisers close to the scalp. The layer of silicones can also obstruct your scalp’s natural shedding rate, leading to a flaky and dry scalp due to trapped, dead skin cells.
The good thing is that your condition is bound to clear up once you stop using the product that caused the allergic reaction. Specialized testing at the dermatologist can identify and help you avoid the allergen in future. A topical steroid can also be used.
#4: Dry Scalp
Winter’s cold air or summer’s heat can cause the skin on your scalp to dry out. We all know that dry skin is itchy, irrespective of whether it’s on your arms, legs or scalp. Your dry scalp could be a result of seasonal changes, dietary deficiencies, frequent shampooing, hair products containing alcohol or because of a dry skin type wherein your scalp produces less natural oils (sebum).
Dry skin, if not treated, can get inflamed, red and irritated. When the skin on your scalp is hydrated and healthy, it is better able to defend itself against invading irritants, allergens and sensitisers.
Try a deep conditioning massage or a hot oil treatment with coconut or olive oil to soothe and nourish your scalp. Switch to a gentle, moisturising shampoo formulated for dry hair and avoid blow-drying or even products with ingredients that can dry out your hair. Increase your intake of vitamins B6 and B12, eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole-grains and supplement your diet with zinc, selenium and flaxseed oil. Hydrate yourself, since water is essential for healthy cell maintenance and growth.
#5: Psoriasis (Autoimmune Disease)
Psoriasis is a hereditary chronic autoimmune disease. It develops when the immune system triggers the overgrowth of skin cells on various parts of the body, including the scalp. The scalp or skin erupts in red, raised scaly patches.
Over-the-counter medicated shampoos containing coal tar or salicylic acid can help control scalp psoriasis. If this doesn’t work, turn to dermatologist prescribed topical cortisone and stronger shampoos.
#6: Tinea Capitis (Ringworm)
Ringworm isn’t actually caused by a worm but is a fungal infection caused by Trichophyton rubrum that penetrates deep into the hair follicle. The result: raised, round rashes on the skin, which is where the name comes from. The fungus can be present in the dead tissue of hair or nails and can spread due to minor scalp injuries, a sweaty scalp or unclean hair. Ringworm is highly contagious and if not treated at once, can lead to significant hair loss. When it occurs in the groin area, it is called a jock itch and between the toes, it is known as athlete’s foot. It can also spread in a man’s beard.
Simply using an over-the-counter anti-fungal solution will not treat Tinea Capitis of the scalp. An oral anti-fungal medication is required since the fungus is present deep in the hair follicles.
Head lice spread through head to head contact, and in fact, prefer clean hair. They are more common amongst school children but can occur in adults as well. If you can feel itching, dryness and a crawling sensation in your scalp, minus loose white flakes indicative of dandruff, head lice could be your problem. The eggs of lice, or nits, can look like dandruff but are firmly attached to individual hair strands. Lice inject their saliva when they bite your scalp and drink your blood, and the itchy feeling is your skin reacting to the saliva they produce.
You can treat head lice with over-the-counter shampoos containing insecticides such as pyrethrin or permethrin which kill lice by directly attacking the nervous system. Head lice can be removed with a special comb using the nitpicking and combing technique. You can also opt for permethrin lotion 1% or natural remedies like olive oil.
Although the symptoms of an itchy scalp look quite similar, involving clusters of dead skin and white or yellow flakes, redness and irritation, their underlying causes could be different, requiring individual and specific treatments. It’s important to consult a dermatologist for the right relief and medication before the condition becomes more severe. Sign up on www.skinandhairacademy.in to contact your nearest dermatologist now.