Have you ever suffered from an itchy scalp? You are not alone. Just about everyone experiences an itchy scalp at some point in their lives, and many people even experience it regularly enough to worry about an underlying condition, particularly if hair loss runs in their family and they are on the lookout for early signs.
Well, according to New York-based dermatologist and hair transplant surgeon Dr. Yael Halaas, “Though many of the medical conditions that cause itching are not directly related to hair loss, some of them do cause both itching and hair loss.” In other words – whether you should worry really depends on the exact cause of your itchy scalp.
In this article, we'll explore this in greater detail – what causes an itchy scalp, which conditions can cause both an itchy scalp and hair loss, and when you should see a doctor about your condition.
What Is Going On Biologically When You Have An Itchy Scalp?
The most common conditions that tend to cause an itchy scalp (such as dandruff or scalp psoriasis) all have something in common in how they make your head itch: they each rev up your immune system and cause inflammation.
Your immune system is the set of cells and processes in your body that detects foreign substances and fights to protect you from them. This is great when, say, you're fighting off a cold or another infection, but what happens when your immune system starts targeting things like dead skin cells? An over-active immune response can cause inflammation—a protective process where white blood cells come to a particular area to defend against specific foreign organisms.
Dandruff, for example, occurs when microorganisms called Malassezia begin to live on our scalps and feed on the sebum (an oily substance produced by our hair follicles). When these yeast-like fungi eat sebum, they produce oleic acid as a byproduct. Most people's bodies don't respond strongly to this oleic acid production…but others do! If your body reacts strongly to the presence of these organisms, then it mounts an inflammatory response and signals other biological processes to start producing lots of white blood cells in the affected area – which makes you feel itchy!
What Conditions Can Cause Both Itchy Scalp And Hair Loss?
Though there are many potential causes for itchy scalp that do not necessarily lead to hair loss, there are also plenty that do – we’ve listed the most causes that most commonly cause a combination of the two here.
For people with psoriasis, their immune system triggers an inflammatory response that leads to the buildup of skin cells at certain areas on the body. This results in scaly red patches that are often found on the scalp. The condition is sometimes also associated with temporary hair loss known as alopecia – this is the case in slightly less than a third of patients with scalp psioriasis.
This is another autoimmune condition that causes red and itchy rashes. It is also possible for eczema to trigger hair loss due to inflammation that places pressure on follicles. Stress or other health issues can also lead to flare-ups of eczema and may increase your risk for hair loss if you already have this condition.
Both cradle cap (a form of seborrheic dermatitis) and ringworm can cause inflammation in your scalp that leads to both itchiness and temporary hair loss. These infections may be more likely if you frequently sweat or expose your head to moisture because they feed off oiliness or dampness on your skin surface.
This might very well sound strange, but depending on your stress levels, the sudden onset of either an itchy scalp, sudden hair loss, or both is actually not unheard of – in fact, there’s a specific term that is frequently applied to this particular case: Telogen effluvium. TE-associated hair loss generally happens because the intense stress you’ve experienced has caused some of your hair follicles to enter a rest phase and, in the space of a few months, they can then suddenly fall out when you comb or wash your hair.
Could Itchy Scalp Worsen Pre-Existing Hair Loss?
If hair loss is already something you were worried about, then yes, scratching your itchy scalp has been shown to contribute to hair loss. This is primarily because the act of scratching your scalp can cause the skin to break, which causes the skin to scar over and no longer be able to produce hair. Severe scratching may also lead to infections, which will worsen hair loss.
Needless to say, the most immediate thing you can do to try and avoid this is to simply stop scratching, even if your itchy scalp can make it extremely difficult to resist the urge. If you really can’t restrain yourself, you can try different remedies to either lessen your itching sensation or otherwise distract yourself. Just keep in mind that with the exception of the particular treatments we’ve listed further down, you should be wary of putting anything in your hair before you can definitively say what the cause of your itchy scalp is – otherwise, you just might unknowingly be making things worse.
Of course, it’s worth noting that there are also times that a severe scalp itch is caused by something that will worsen your pre-existing hair loss for reasons beyond just you giving in to the urge to scratch your head, such as seborrheic dermatitis, which is an inflammatory condition that depletes the scalp's natural oils and often leads to itchiness and/or dandruff. However, even in such cases you will only ever make things worse by scratching yourself – it really is just never worth the risk.
How To Treat Itchy Scalp At Home
Alright, so regardless of the particular cause of your itchy scalp, you’ve likely been scratching your head for answers as to how to actually relieve your symptoms. Fortunately, there are several common home remedies that, should they work for you, could save you the pain of a doctor’s visit.
First, as we’ve already mentioned – before you do anything else, avoid scratching! No matter how tempting it might be, resist scratching or using sharp objects like combs or bobby pins to relieve itching because they can irritate the skin further and cause damage to your hair follicles (especially if you have weak hair). Instead, maybe try massaging in an oil blend into your scalp to alleviate irritation – and stick with gentle brushes like boar bristle paddle brushes rather than using more abrasive metal combs and picks, which can damage already distressed hair follicles even more.
You’ll also want to make sure that you find and use a medicinal shampoo. If washing your hair more often doesn’t help, try switching up the products you use on your strands and scalp. Specifically, look for a shampoo that contains menthol or eucalyptus—both are anti-inflammatory ingredients known to soothe an itchy scalp.
Another important tip is to be sure to reassess other hair products that you have been using, even if you were using them before your scalp started itching. If changing shampoos isn't helping your symptoms, you should also consider whether something else you’re applying could be causing your irritation – like hair dye or certain styling products like pomades, volumizers and gels which can clog pores on the scalp when used excessively. Maybe try opting for lighter formulas that are less likely to weigh down fine strands or otherwise aggravate your pores and thus your scalp.
Finally, when all else fails, the desperate can always try DIY treatments. Don’t go with just any “natural” remedy though – that could well worsen your problem. Instead, we recommend trying to mix 1 tablespoon of honey with 1 teaspoon of cinnamon in a bowl until fully combined. Then work the mixture into your hair and leave it on for 20 minutes before washing it out in the shower as usual. It may sound ridiculous, but studies have frequently made note of honey’s antibacterial properties, while cinnamon has been shown to stimulate circulation by relaxing your blood vessels, so when combined, they’re both working together to eliminate some of the different hijinks that may be triggering your itchy scalp.
When To See A Doctor
If your itchy scalp is accompanied by other symptoms – like if it begins bleeding, appears discolored, or you begin to experience noticeable pain, that’s an immediate sign that you should give your doctor a visit. Hair loss counts too, especially if you have been sure to avoid scratching.
Another sign that you should see a doctor is prolonged itching, that is, if your scalp itches for more than two months. This is something you should definitely get checked out even if it is the only symptom.
Your doctor will likely ask you a number of questions about the situation in order to determine whether there are some home remedies you can try first, or whether they should refer you to a dermatologist. If they can identify a specific cause, they may also be able to recommend a particular treatment or offer a specific prescription that will help to alleviate your symptoms.
Have an itchy scalp and hair loss? First, try cleaning your hair with the appropriate shampoo, which should be one that is formulated for your hair type and disease state. In addition to trying a new shampoo, you may want to try a different type of conditioner.
Experiencing hair loss but not itchiness? Try applying a topical minoxidil directly to the scalp once or twice daily. This formulation can help stimulate hair growth.
Consider seeing a dermatologist if you have both an itchy scalp and hair loss, as this symptom combination may signal that you have some sort of inflammatory skin disorder (like psoriasis) on top of the early stages of pattern baldness.
In general, while there are many ways you can go about caring for your scalp and strands to avoid dryness, dandruff and excess shedding, most treatments do not provide immediate results. It can take weeks or even months before you start seeing changes in how your mane looks or feels
This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical or other professional advice. Your specific circumstances should be discussed with a healthcare provider. All statements of opinion represent the writers' judgement at the time of publication and are subject to change. Phoenix and its affiliates provide no express or implied endorsements of third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products, or services.