There are many reasons why the head, like any part of the body, itches. It is not uncommon. We all scratch our head at times and sometimes it has nothing to do with an itch. It is somewhat of a social norm to scratch your head when you are thinking or nervous. But when head itching is persistent and affecting your life then it needs to be investigated further. In these instance an itchy head may be a medical problem that needs proper medical treatment. However, some of the more common reasons for head itching can easily be prevented and treated without drugs, shampoos or ointments.
Why does the head itch?
Most of us refer to the top of our head, which is the scalp, when talk about itching of the head. But the head includes the face. However, for everyday purposes we will focus on an itchy scalp. It is important to understand that hair does not have any sensory receptors. This means that hair cannot feel pain, itching, changes in temperature or pressure. So why does it pain when your hair is pulled? It is the force placed on hair that pulls at the root of the follicle in the scalp. When it comes to itching though, it is the scalp itself that is the site of the problem.
Itch receptors are located in the skin only unlike pain receptors which are distributed throughout the body. Itching is believed to be a sensation that prompts a person to take action. For example, a crawling insect may elicit the itching sensation which compels a person to scratch and remove the bug before it bites. It is also part of the finer touch sensations so sometimes very light touch can feel like itching. Similarly inflammation which is usually associated with pain can elicit itching at the inflamed area.
Causes of Head Itching
Here is a list of common and some uncommon causes of head itching :
- Poor hygiene.
- Dryness of the skin on the scalp.
- Dandruff (adults) or cradle cap (infants).
- Skin irritation or allergic reactions to hair care products and shampoo (irritant or allergic contact dermatitis).
- Scalp psoriasis.
- Tinea capitis (scalp ringworm which is a fungal infection).
- Head lice.
- Scalp acne.
Avoid Covering Your Head
The hair on your scalp helps prevent heat loss through the top of the head. When you cover your head, especially for long periods of time, you further trap heat with a hat, cap, scarf or bandana. As the heat builds up your scalp sweating increases. But being within a closed environment covered by a hat or scarf, the sweat cannot evaporate. Both the sweat and heat build up irritate the skin. For this reason people who cover their heads tend to experience an itchy head. It is usually worse in hot climates.
The problem is further compounded if you use hair products, like styling gel, which may be altered with the heat and mixes with the sweat to irritate the scalp. These conditions may also increase the chances of fungal infections of the scalp (ringworm). The combination of heat, moisture and darkness provides the ideal environment for fungi to thrive. Coupled with the breaks in the skin by scratching, a fungus can quickly infect the outer layers of the skin and also affect the hair.
Let the scalp breathe
If you are suffering from an itchy head, then it may be time to reconsider covering your head on a regular basis. Sometimes wearing a hat or scarf is done for cultural and work reasons which makes it difficult to just discontinue. However, in these instances it may be worthwhile looking at minimizing the period of time that your head is covered. Try to let the scalp ventilate adequately when the situation permits. Find head wear made of lighter fabric which can allow for greater airflow and prevent a buildup of sweat on the scalp. If a fungal infection has set in, then medical treatment is needed.
Wash Your Hair Regularly
The purpose of bathing is to remove any the sweat, dead skin cells, dust and microbes that collect on the surface of our body. Bathing is a daily ritual, which we may even practice up to 3 times a day in some instances. However, many people are not as conscientious when it comes to washing their hair. While short hair is easier to wash and dry, long hair or hair with braids and specific styles poses some problems. For this reasons some people may wash their hair and scalp infrequently, like only once or twice a week or sometimes not even wash their hair for months at at time.
The hair on the head tends to traps large amounts of dust and microbes from the environment. Thousands of strands can act like a net giving a larger surface area where all types of irritants and infectious agents may adhere to the scalp. If it is not washed regularly, the buildup can lead to a range of skin disorders and infections. Therefore regular washing of the hair and scalp with a good shampoo is important. If daily washing is not possible then at least wash your hair 2 to 3 times in a week. Avoid strong shampoos which can in fact further irritate the scalp and cause an itchy head.
Reduce Hair Care and Styling Products
For many people, stepping out without doing their hair is inconceivable. But hair care and styling products can be a major factor when looking at ways to avoid head itching. It does not mean that your hair should be unkempt. Minimizing the use of hair care and styling products can still mean neat hair without scalp irritation and head itching that may follow. There are a wide range of products that can be a problem even though it may be labeled 100% hypoallergenic and are popular brands on the market. Even hair styling equipment like straightening or curling tongs and hair dryers can be a problem.
Hair straightening agents, hair dyes and substances for permanent waves (perms) are some of the harsher products. But even simple styling gel and sprays and mild hair oilsmay be the offending agents. Some of these chemicals damage the scalp while other hair products may combine with dust, sweat and dead skin cells to irritate the skin on the head. It may extend to the forehead, neck and down the back. If itching and burning tends to arise after the use of any hair product, the trigger product should be stopped altogether. Sometimes using smaller quantities or milder brands may not elicit the same reaction.
Moisturize the Scalp
Dry skin is one of the major problems that affects the scalp. It is not due to just environmental factors like sun, heat and wind. Instead it is the use of hair products that has a drying effect on the scalp. Even overuse of shampoo can be a problem. Moisturizing the scalp is therefore necessary if it dry but without using products that can ultimately contribute to dryness. Some diseases like psoriasis cause severe dryness of the scalp and untreated dryness can predispose the scalp to infections. However, it is important to remember that the skin has its own mechanisms to naturally moisturize the skin.
Firstly, stop using hair care products which may be contributing to dryness. Even a week or two of stopping these products can give the skin time to start compensating. If necessary, rinse the hair with water only and use shampoo just once a week. When moisturizing the head, remember that it is the scalp that needs to be moisturized, not the hair. Most commercial hair oils are just that – moisturizers for the hair and not the scalp itself. The scalp does not need to be moisturized daily. Just once or twice a week may suffice. Wash out the moisturizer afterwards as it can trap dust, dead skin cells and sweat which can further irritate the scalp and contribute to head itching.
Do Not Share Personal Items
Be it a hat, comb or even a towel, sharing personal items is one of the easiest ways that microbes and parasites spread from the scalp of one person to another. It is not always a matter of hygiene. Some organisms have a predilection for the scalp and hair on it and once they gain access, they will cause an infection or infestation which are difficult to get rid of. Itching of the head is one of the main symptoms. Sometimes it can be the only symptom and without further examination by a doctor, the infection or infestation can become chronic.
Scalp ringworm, head lice and scabies are some of the common infections and infestations that affects on the scalp. Treatment is usually aggressive and prolonged but the chance of a recurrence is high. Therefore it is important that you do not share or lend your personal items to another person, particularly those items used on the hair and scalp, if you are suffering with head itching. If personal items have been shared for whatever reason, then exposing the item to sunlight and immersing it in boiling water may destroy all organisms.
Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on March 19, 2013