Itchy scalp and hair loss
Reviewed by our clinical team
An itchy scalp, also known as ‘scalp pruritis’, is a common medical condition with a range of different causes.
What causes an itchy scalp?
Itchy scalps can be a symptom of many different conditions, from dandruff, to allergic reactions, to skin conditions. Whatever the cause, an itchy scalp can be frustrating and distracting, and make us self-conscious.
Many people worry that an itchy scalp is a sign of impending hair loss. Although this is not always the case, some hair loss conditions can trigger an itchy scalp, and the two often go hand in hand.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the causes behind itchy scalps, the likelihood of potential hair loss, and what you can do to treat it before it gets worse.
What are the symptoms of an itchy scalp?
Scalp itching can be caused by a wide range of conditions, each of which comes with its own set of symptoms.
While some conditions can be avoided by taking care of your scalp - such as ensuring your head is protected from the sun, or by using a moisturising shampoo - others are caused by immune responses or skin conditions that cannot be predicted or prevented.
An itchy scalp is commonly accompanied by other symptoms, such as flakiness, scaly patches, and bumps on the skin. Itching might also appear alongside hair loss, or the itching itself can lead to hair loss due to excessive scratching or damage to the follicles.
Itchy scalp and hair loss causes
A common cause of the scalp itching is dandruff. Dandruff is a common skin condition that causes flakes of skin to appear on the scalp and in the hair.
Dandruff is thought to be causes by a a yeast that feeds on the oils on your scalp, or it might be down to a bacterial imbalance on the scalp. It can be made worse by the cold weather and stress. It's not caused by poor hygiene, but it might be more noticeable if your hair hasn't been washed for a while.
Dandruff isn't serious, but in some cases, if left untreated, thick layers of dandruff can build up and get stuck to the scalp. This condition is known as pityriasis amiantacea, which for some people can disrupt the hair growth cycle, and cause hair loss.
If the itching has come on very suddenly, it could be that you’re allergic to one or more of the ingredients in the hair products you use. For example, paraphenylendiamine (PPD), a common ingredient in hair dyes, is thought to cause reactions on the scalps of those that are allergic to it. PPD can even lead to hair loss with repeated use or in those that are particularly sensitive to it.
The bites or stings of certain insects can also cause inflammation or itching on the scalp. Look for raised bumps or rashes, and if the itching doesn’t fade after a few days, you should speak to your GP.
Psoriasis is a very common skin condition that causes itching and flaking of the skin, which forms scales. We don’t know for sure what causes it, but it’s thought to be an immune system condition that leads to skin cells being replaced too quickly.
Many people who have psoriasis somewhere on their body will develop scalp psoriasis, leading to an inflamed scalp, dry scales, and even hair loss due to scratching and picking if left untreated.
Alopecia, also known as alopecia areata, is one of the most common causes of hair loss and hair thinning. Alopecia has a wide range of triggers, from stress to hormonal fluctuations to other medical conditions such as autoimmune disorders. As well as hair loss, alopecia can present with itching and tingling.
Tinea capitis is more commonly known as ringworm of the scalp, which despite the name is actually a fungal infection. Ringworm of the scalp usually presents with itchiness and a rash that might appear red or silver, as well as black bumps.
This type of infection can penetrate into the shaft of the hair, which causes itchiness and can potentially lead to hair loss as the hair breaks off at the scalp or just above, creating stubble.
It’s important to know that ringworm is highly infectious, particularly among young children, and should be treated as soon as possible.
Folliculitis is the term for an inflammation of the hair follicles caused by bacteria, yeast or mites. Folliculitis can occur anywhere on the skin where hair is present.
Folliculitis usually presents with small, itchy bumps and temporary hair loss, though hair usually returns after treatment. In rare cases, however, hair loss can be permanent, so it’s important to get it diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.
Lichen planopilaris is an autoimmune disorder more commonly found women, usually presenting with itching, redness, burning, bumps, scaly skin, or even blisters.
Hair loss from lichen planopilaris can be permanent if hair follicles become damaged due to scarring, so again, it’s important to speak to your doctor as soon as possible.
Medical scalp treatment for hair loss
It’s important to treat the cause of the hair loss and itching as it will likely only get worse with time. Treatment will depend on the cause, for example, if your doctor diagnoses you with ringworm, you will most likely be prescribed an anti-fungal tablets such as griseofulvin or terbinafine, often alongside an antifungal shampoo like Ketoconazole.
Once the underlying cause has been addressed, your doctor might recommend further treatment for the hair loss itself.
As there are a few different causes of hair loss, treatment will once again depend on the diagnosis. The most commonly prescribed treatment for male pattern hair loss is Finasteride, a pill which reduces the production of a hormone called dihydrotestosterone, or DHT.
For men and women, your doctor might also recommend an over-the-counter medication called minoxidil. Minoxidil (commonly referred to by the brand name Regaine) comes as a lotion or foam, but should not be applied to sore or cracked skin. So you should only use minoxidil for hair regrowth once the underlying issue has been addressed.
Natural/at home remedies for itchy scalp and hair loss
Your doctor will prescribe the best course of treatment, but there are some additional natural or at-home remedies that you can try to help slow down hair loss or encourage hair regrowth.
Hair loss vitamins
In cases where hair growth is being caused or worsened by a vitamin deficiency, you might consider taking so-called hair loss vitamins to help boost the quality of your hair.
Although it's worth saying that here's little evidence to support vitamins and supplements helping your hair loss, so your GP won't prescribe these.
However, as always, eating a balanced diet, packed with all the nutrients you need to stay healthy can help support your body and in turn help keep your skin and hair healthy.
Caffeine shampoo is a type of shampoo that contains caffeine extract, which supposedly encourages hair growth. The most common caffeine shampoo brand is Alpecin, which emerged from a 2007 study on using caffeine to grow hair.
Generally speaking, caffeine shampoos are not endorsed by the medical community for treating hair loss.
Itching and hair loss often go hand in hand, but can be caused by a range of conditions, each of which comes with its own symptoms and causes.
Although there’s no one magic cure to prevent itching and hair loss, you should still speak to your doctor if you’re struggling. They can advise on the right method of treatment and prevent the condition from worsening, leading to permanent hair loss.