Scalp Eczema 101- Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and More

It is normal for us to scratch our heads every once in a while. However, excessive itching of the scalp could mean something serious than just a random thought. There are chances that you may have dandruff, and in some cases, eczema. Also known as atopic dermatitis, eczema is a condition where the skin becomes inflamed, itchy and red. While it is usually a condition known to appear on your limbs, there are instances when it can appear on scalp as well. Often scalp eczema is mistaken for dandruff or dry scalp. The scientific term for scalp eczema is seborrheic dermatitis.

Causes of Scalp eczema

Seborrheic dermatitis usually occurs during puberty or adulthood, while atopic dermatitis (the scientific term for regular eczema) usually affects young children and infants. Scalp eczema occurs due to overproduction of sebum in the body. These are the natural oils that are produced by the sebaceous glands in the body. Seborrheic dermatitis can be very unpleasant for those who contract it, but it is not contagious. Since the glands secrete oil, seborrheic dermatitis can occur in other parts of the body where there is oil accumulation, such as the face or underarms. There are many reasons why scalp eczema occurs:

1. Hormonal changes in the body 

Scalp eczema is a common among people going through puberty or menopause. The chemical changes in the body can result in seborrheic dermatitis.

2. The immune system response

People may suffer from scalp eczema if the immune system has an unusual response to something you ate, or a foreign element which can cause irritation in the skin. You are also likely to contract seborrheic dermatitis if you have a pre-existing condition that has an adverse impact on the immune system, like Parkinson’s Disease or HIV.

3. Medication

Certain medication can also result in eczema, especially those that contain lithium, psoralen, or interferon. People with depression also tend to contract seborrheic dermatitis.

A few causes for scalp eczema include the skin’s reaction to harsh chemicals in soaps and shampoo, sweating, hormonal changes in the body, and a reaction to certain medication. Alternatively, seborrheic dermatitis is a symptom of serious health issues such as:


A person who has HIV is likely to have scalp eczema. Research shows that nearly 25-45% of the people who have HIV suffer from this condition. Scalp eczema is related to the immune system of the body and the function of HIV is to attack the CD4/ T-cells that are important to the immune system in the body. In fact, seborrheic dermatitis is one of the early symptoms of HIV.

5. Parkinson’s disease

While there is no direct connection between Parkinson’s and seborrheic dermatitis, many Parkinson’s patients are likely to experience dry scalp issues. This issue is more common in men than women because sebum secretion that occurs during seborrheic dermatitis is related to the male sex hormones. Dry scalp can get worse if you are tired or anxious.

Symptoms of scalp eczema

Scalp eczema can cause the skin to become greasy, waxy and dry. The patches of affected skin on your scalp will release a clear fluid when scratched. In addition, the affected area of the skin can remain a different colour even when the skin has healed. Some of the symptoms of eczema include:

1. Patchy and itchy skin

The affected patch of skin can be scaly and red, feels itchy as though it is burning. When you scratch your head it can result in lesions and may also result in discharge from the ear which is a result of eczema from the scalp going into the ear.

2. Other skin conditions

Scalp eczema can also be the result of other skin conditions such as contact dermatitis, an abnormal reaction when the body comes into contact with a certain substance. Other symptoms include psoriasis, rosacea and atopic eczema.

Since seborrheic dermatitis is a symptom of serious health problems, it should not be taken lightly. If you face any irritation in the scalp, it is important to visit the doctor and receive the right treatment and medication for the problem. Seborrheic dermatitis is known to affect 11.6% of the general population.

Diagnosis of scalp eczema

When you feel itchiness in the scalp, it is important to visit the doctor and receive the right diagnosis. Seborrheic dermatitis is often mistaken for dandruff and they both require different treatments. Additionally, the dandruff is also a symptom of scalp eczema. Your doctor can diagnose eczema just by looking at your scalp and can even scrape off some skin to rule out other potential health problems with similar symptoms such as:

1. Atopic dermatitis

It is the most common type of eczema that affects young children and adults. It causes the skin to become itchy, red and inflamed and can occur in knees, elbows and neck.

2. Psoriasis

Psoriasis causes the skin to become red and dandruff. With this condition, your skin will be scalier and whiter.

3. Tinea versicolor

It is a rash that appears on the backside and is not usually red as it is with seborrheic dermatitis. 

Treatment for scalp eczema

When your doctor confirms that you have scalp eczema, there are a number of treatments that can reduce the swelling and redness and bring the immune system back to normal. Your eczema could be a reaction to a hair product that you are using. A milder shampoo or conditioner helps in these conditions. While over-the-counter products can help with a dandruff issue, you need something stronger to combat seborrheic dermatitis. Here are a few treatments your doctor might recommend:

1. Antifungal creams and mild shampoos and conditioners

Based on how severe the scalp eczema is, doctors recommend a shampoo or gel that contains 1% ciclopirox and 2% ketoconazole. Antifungal treatments help reduce the yeast on the skin.

2. Creams and shampoos to control the inflammation on the scalp

Doctors may prescribe creams or gels that contain fluocinolone, desonide, or Clobetasol. The doctor can also recommend a steroid-based cream. These need to be applied directly to the affected area. However, these creams are incredibly harsh on the skin and should not be used frequently. If they are applied on the scalp for an extended period of time with no break, they may cause side effects such as thinning skin and lines on the scalp.

3. Antifungal pills

If the creams and gels are not treating seborrheic dermatitis effectively, the doctor may prescribe the same medication in the form of a pill. The pills are the last resort for many doctors as it is known to cause serious side effects.

4. Lifestyle changes

Along with medication and shampoo, you also need to self-diagnose what is causing the inflammation in the scalp. You can keep a list of any certain activities or environments that trigger the condition. Some details you need to observe can include what you ate, your stress levels, and the shampoo or hair product you are using.

When you have scalp eczema, you can reduce the crusts on the scalp by using olive or mineral oil on your hair before washing it. In addition to the medicated shampoo prescribed, you can also use a de-scaling agent that contains salicylic acid or coal tar. Alternatively, using shampoo containing 5 per cent tea tree oil can help as well.

Prevention of scalp eczema

Scalp eczema is the result of an allergic reaction of a product or substance that affects the immunity levels in the body. To avoid inflammation of the skin you should:

  • wash your hair with a mild shampoo or conditioner.
  • wash your hair after a workout, as sweat is a cause of seborrheic dermatitis.
  • avoid frequent contact with products that contain harsh chemicals or allergens.
  • keep your stress levels in check.

If you suffer from any symptoms such as itchiness, burning, blistered skin or fluid in the scalp, you should visit your doctor immediately. The doctor will examine your skin and ask about your medical history which could help identify other causes of seborrheic dermatitis. Additionally, the doctor may also perform other tests to rule out other conditions such as psoriasis or rosacea.

Scalp eczema usually responds to treatment, but in some instances, the condition can reappear so you need to constantly be on the lookout for any symptoms. You would need a specialized prescription if over-the-counter medication does not work. It is recommended to see a dermatologist before the condition gets too serious.


Also recommended

Psoriasis vs Eczema- What Are The Differences Between Them?

Eczema- Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

10 Natural Home Remedies for Eczema Relief

Shyamala Rajasekar

Foodaholic with an untrustworthy appetite. Meat lover. She cannot write bios.

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