Lots of things can make your scalp itchy. But if it’s a persistent concern (and it’s starting to interfere with your life), you might want to consider talking with a dermatologist about scalp eczema.
Eczema is a very common skin condition in the United States. It typically affects the hands, neck, inner elbows, and the delicate area around the eyes, although it’s not unusual for it to reach the scalp, too.
It can cause very dry, inflamed, scaly skin that can feel unbearably itchy. Understandably, these things can be harder to notice on top of your head. Or you might assume it’s merely dandruff or a dry scalp. But if it is scalp eczema, over-the-counter dandruff shampoos aren’t going to help.
What causes scalp eczema?
There are many different types of eczema, but the two that most commonly affect the scalp are contact dermatitis and atopic dermatitis.
Contact dermatitis occurs when the skin becomes irritated by something the skin comes into contact with (irritant contact dermatitis) or an allergic reaction (allergic contact dermatitis) to a particular substance. In the case of scalp eczema, it could be something like a fragrance in a soap or shampoo.
Generally, you’ll get a rash on your head about 24 to 48 hours after your scalp comes into contact with an irritant or allergen. On the bright side, the symptoms will usually subside once you avoid the irritant or allergen that triggered the reaction.
Atopic dermatitis is less straightforward. Researchers suspect it’s caused, at least in part, by your immune system overreacting to irritants or allergens, which leads to chronic inflammation. The American Academy of Dermatology says that people with a family history of atopic dermatitis, allergies, and any form of asthma are at greater risk of developing atopic dermatitis.
If you already have a skin condition that weakens your skin’s protective barrier, including atopic dermatitis, you’re more susceptible to developing contact dermatitis too.
What can you do about it?
If you think you might have eczema on your scalp, see a board-certified dermatologist if you can. Come to the appointment with a list of your symptoms. You doctor may recommend a skin patch test, which involves placing small amounts of potential allergens and irritants on your skin under their supervision. The areas are covered with patches that you’ll keep on for two days. Then, you’ll return to the doctor’s office so they can inspect your skin for reactions.
If your doctor does diagnose you with scalp eczema, there are a number of treatment options that can range from simply steering clear of irritants or allergens as much as possible and soothing your skin with a cool compress to using a gentler shampoo and conditioner and avoiding over-washing your hair. Eczema is often triggered or worsened by reactions to abrasive hair- or skincare products.
Topical medications are also available. Corticosteroids are the most common atopic dermatitis treatment. They come in a variety of forms, including ointments, creams, lotions, sprays, and foams.
The bottom line: If you’re constantly scratching your head, you don’t need to suffer in silence.