If you have a scalp, it’s going to itch at some point. But if the top of your head is severely itchy, you might actually have eczema on your scalp. Yup, it happens.
Eczema is a condition that can cause flare-ups of a red, scaly, itchy rash to appear on different parts of your body, according to the Mayo Clinic. The most common form of eczema is atopic dermatitis, which generally shows up on areas of your body like your hands, feet, ankles, wrists, neck, upper chest, eyelids, elbows, and knees, but it can be anywhere—including under your hair.
You might not think you can have eczema if you’re having issues only with your scalp, but it’s possible. While it’s likely that having scalp eczema also means that you have it elsewhere, it’s not a requirement. “Sometimes eczema can be seen only on the scalp,” Gary Goldenberg, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, tells SELF.
Translation: If you’re dealing with intense scalp irritation, don’t assume you can combat it on your own—get to a dermatologist as soon as you can.
You would think you couldn’t miss having eczema on your scalp, but people with this condition often mistake it for something else. “Many times, patients just assume it is a consequence they have to live with from their hair products, or that they have a dry scalp,” Cynthia Bailey, M.D., a diplomate of the American Board of Dermatology and founder of Dr. Bailey Skin Care, tells SELF.
Here’s how to tell whether or not eczema is what’s really behind your irritated scalp.
What causes scalp eczema?
Eczema is a term that’s used to describe several different conditions, one of which is atopic dermatitis. All of these conditions are caused by a disruption in the skin barrier that usually keeps irritants out and hydration in. But if that barrier isn’t working properly, the skin can become dry, red, irritated, and sensitive to irritants and allergens. That barrier disruption may be driven by a gene variation, the Mayo Clinic says.
There are some triggers that your scalp is especially likely to come in contact with, like ingredients in your shampoo, conditioner, and hair styling products. If you brush your hair aggressively, wash your hair too frequently, or heat-style your hair often, those could also aggravate dry skin on your scalp or trigger eczema symptoms.
What are the symptoms of eczema on your scalp?
When your skin’s barrier is unable to function properly, that makes it difficult for the skin to keep moisture in. It also makes the skin more sensitive to potential irritants. So, according to the Mayo Clinic, the symptoms of eczema often include:
- very dry skin
- patches of reddish or brownish skin
- intense itching that gets especially bad at night
- sensitive or swollen skin after scratching
- flakes on your clothes or shoulders after scratching
- small bumps that might leak fluid
- thickened or cracked skin
What’s the difference between scalp eczema and scalp psoriasis?
There are a surprising amount of conditions that can cause an itchy scalp, so it’s important to be sure you know what you’re really dealing with. Seborrheic dermatitis, for example, is a major cause of dandruff and has an entirely different treatment plan than eczema.
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