Itchy scalp: When it’s not just dandruff

Sometimes itching and inflammation can be caused by something other than dandruff. Excessive itching can cause root damage in the long term which can potentially cause hair loss so it’s important to find the cause and treatment. No matter the cause, an itchy scalp can be a big distraction from everyday tasks and cause distress, so it’s important to treat it.

Carry on reading to discover the most common reasons for an itchy scalp and how to relieve the itching.


Hives can form anywhere on the body and usually look like red, raised bumps that are very itchy. Triggers for hives include food, plants, chemicals, dust mites and even stress. Although hives tend to come and go on their own and usually only last a couple of hours, they can be very itchy.

How to relieve hive itching:

Antihistamines are used to treat hives, which can be prescribed by a medical professional. They work by blocking the effects of histamines and reducing the rash, which helps stop the itching.

Atopic dermatitis

Categorised as a type of eczema, atopic dermatitis can develop on the scalp causing itching, redness and scaly skin. Itching is the main symptom of atopic dermatitis, affecting 1 in 12 adults and 1 in 5 children in the UK every day. Atopic dermatitis on the scalp can cause flaking of the skin when it’s been scratched which can mimic the appearance of dandruff.

How to relieve atopic dermatitis/ eczema itching:

Atopic dermatitis can be managed through a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy sleep pattern, as well as avoiding stress. It’s important for atopic dermatitis sufferers to keep their skin moisturised, as dry skin could cause further itching. Doctors may prescribe creams, such as topical steroids, to relieve the itching and scratching.

Allergic reaction

An allergic reaction to hair care products can cause the scalp to become very itchy and uncomfortable. Common ingredients in hair dye, such as para-phenylenediamine, can sometimes cause allergic reactions.

How to relieve itching from an allergic reaction:

Stop using products that cause itching or burning on the scalp immediately to prevent further damage to the skin. If the cause of the reaction is unknown you will need to find the source to stop the reaction. You may need to be referred to a dermatologist for further investigation.

Head lice

Although head lice are more commonly found in school children, adults are not immune to catching them. A telltale sign of having lice is itching. Head lice thrive in clean hair, so lice don’t necessarily indicate poor hygiene. Nit eggs can often look similar to dandruff flakes, which can be confusing.

How to relieve head lice itching:

Treat head lice as soon as they are spotted to stop the spread and transmission to other people. Lice can be removed by running a fine nit comb through wet hair. Alternatively, there are medicated lotions and sprays available to kill the lice before they are removed with a nit comb. Speak with a pharmacist to find out more.


Scalp psoriasis can cause dry, itchy and scaly rashes to occur. It’s often difficult to distinguish from eczema, but typically, scalp psoriasis is more commonly found around the nape of the neck, near the hairline. Just like other scalp skin conditions, psoriasis can cause itchiness on the scalp and cause discomfort for the sufferer.

How to relieve psoriasis itching:

Doctors can prescribe a coal-tar based shampoo or scalp application for treatment. Similarly to eczema, psoriasis can also be treated with topical steroid creams.


How to treat dandruff

If the cause of your itchy scalp is dandruff, there’s no need to worry - it can be easily treated! First of all, dandruff can be identified as oily, large yellow or white flakes and the skin on the scalp may look oily, red and scaly. Dandruff can be treated with shampoos that contain active ingredients, such as ketoconazole which targets the root cause and not just the symptoms. Nizoral with ketoconazole targets Malassezia to treat dandruff and stop it from returning.

Scalp itching can be distressing for sufferers and interrupt day to day life. An itchy scalp can also be caused by a number of lifestyle factors too such as stress, age and hormones. It’s important to find out the cause of the itching to treat it appropriately. If you’re unsure of your symptoms, consult a medical professional, such as your pharmacist or GP, for further advice.