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What is Burning Scalp Syndrome?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Burning scalp syndrome is a poorly understood condition in which part or all of a person's scalp feels itchy, tender, tingly, or hot. The disorder is usually chronic, and the intensity of symptoms can fluctuate from hardly noticeable to nearly unbearable. The limited research that has been done on this condition has uncovered many potential causes and risk factors, including inflammatory skin diseases such as psoriasis, the onset of hair loss, and psychiatric problems such as depression and anxiety disorders. The course of treatment is determined on a case-by-case basis, but it often includes soothing topical creams or oral antidepressants.

Little is known about the true causes of burning scalp syndrome, though many theories exist. Many patients with the condition also suffer from skin problems elsewhere on their bodies related to psoriasis and other autoimmune disorders. Androgenetic alopecia, or male-pattern baldness, may be a predisposing factor in both men and women as they age. People who have overly sensitive scalps may experience acute burning sensations when using irritating shampoos, dyes, and other haircare products, but they rarely develop chronic scalp problems.

One of the most common findings in people with this condition is a history of psychological problems, especially depression. The correlation between physical symptoms of the scalp and depression are not clear, though it is well known that depressive disorders can result in chronic aches and pains. Many patients in research studies have reported that their symptoms worsen when they are under a great deal of stress in their lives.

A person who experiences frequent or chronic scalp pain should visit a dermatologist to learn more about the condition and possible remedies. If a physical exam reveals scalp inflammation, the first course of treatment is typically anti-inflammatory ointments and creams. Patients are often instructed to use mild shampoos, avoid irritating haircare products, and apply topical creams daily until symptoms improve. If the initial examination does not reveal a clear physical problem and the patient has a history of stress or depression, the dermatologist may suggest a psychological evaluation.

Patients who have depression and burning scalp syndrome frequently benefit from daily oral antidepressants and regular counseling sessions. Low-dose antidepressants, such as doxepin hydrochloride and amitriptyline hydrochloride, can help lower stress and may even have painkilling properties. Psychological counseling can help a patient better understand his or her mental problems and develop effective stress-relieving techniques. Most people who seek treatment eventually see major improvements.

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Discussion Comments
By anon929844 — On Feb 03, 2014

I suffered from this problem, and finally realized it was the vitamins I was taking! Stress and depression made it worse, but the supplements were causing it. Try stopping all supplements for a few days. My stinging scalp and hair shedding stopped immediately! (38 year old male)

By fify — On Sep 09, 2011

@simrin-- Do you have hair loss too? I think burning scalp syndrome also causes hair loss and flares up when someone is under a lot of stress.

I think it was probably the shampoo, since it sounds like not much happened other than that in the past two weeks. I know that some chemicals can cause itching and redness on even not so sensitive people. My friend experienced months of scalp itching and redness when the chemicals they used on her hair for straightening at the salon burned her scalp. You could be allergic to something in the shampoo also.

The best way to confirm is to see a dermatologist. You can probably avoid making it worse by using natural and gentle shampoos. Brushing wouldn't be a good idea either since it will irritate your scalp even more. You can apply creams with antihistamine or aloe vera for the burning.

By SteamLouis — On Sep 09, 2011

How do we define chronic burning scalp? How long does it usually go on for?

My scalp has been itching like crazy for the past two weeks, ever since I used my dad's anti-dandruff shampoo. I don't have a sensitive scalp in general, I can usually use any shampoo. My scalp looks all red and it's so hard not to itch it. When I do itch it, I'm scared that it will bleed or something.

Do you think this is an allergic reaction? But wouldn't it have gone in two weeks if it was an allergy? At which point should I worry about having the burning scalp syndrome?

By candyquilt — On Sep 08, 2011

It's unbelievable how stress and anxiety causes different physical pains and problems. I have been dealing with depression and anxiety for a while now, and the burning scalp syndrome started recently.

It's not a good feeling, it can be very painful at times. I am using a topical ointment which seems to help a lot, but I'm also losing hair, which is stressing me out even more.

I'm trying to not think about it so that I don't make my condition even worse. I also have an appointment with a psychologist next week. She will probably prescribe a mild anti-anxiety medicine. I really hope the itch, pain and hair loss will disappear once I start taking that.

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