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Is compulsive scratching common?

15 answers | Last updated: Oct 12, 2015
An anonymous caregiver asked...

My mother in-law has had Alzheimer's for at least four years. She is getting progressively worse, now forgetting where their bathroom is in there home. She is crying a lot at night and also repeatedly scratching her head, causing sores. My father in-law has had her wear hats to help stop the scratching, but it only works sometimes. Is this head scratching common with Alzheimer's or could it be a medication problem?


Caring.com User - Joyce Simard
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A social worker and geriatric consultant who specializes in dementia care, Joyce Simard is based in Land O' Lakes, Florida, and in Prague. She...
53% helpful
Joyce Simard answered...

The head is an unlikely place for itching, if that is the cause of her scratching her head. Could it be a scalp condition? Perhaps seeing a dermatologist could provide an answer. I think the hat idea is a good one. Have a variety of hats and let her choose the hat for the day. Young people like the knitted hats and they come in a variety of colors. also try to keep her hands busy when she feels like scratching with a variety of sorting activities like separating cards, folding baby clothes, buttons (if she is not in danger of swallowing them) and craft items that are seasonal.


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73% helpful
Ruth S-Professional answered...

Certainly it is wise to make sure that there is not something medical happening with your mother's hair, scalp. Also, has she been willing to permit hair washes? Has the type of shampoo/conditioner changed? Is her hair being rinsed thoroughly? Once that is ruled out (and even beforehand), I would defintely observe your mother to see if there is a pattern to her scratching (certain times of day, related to certain activities-or lack of activities) It could be a behavior issue related to anxiety or boredom. It would be interesting to see if the scratching would continue if you could engage her in an activity she would find enjoyable. Think back to what she used to enjoy doing, such as cooking, cleaning, folding laundry, etc. Try getting her to exercise that uses her hands-hitting a balloon tossed to her, etc.


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JennyB answered...

There's a very good article about the many things that can cause an Alzheimer's patient to pick or scratch at the skin, at:



Carol P answered...

My mother has begun scratching her head and insisting there is something in her hair. If she isn't straching she is winding her hair. She has her hair set every week and I thought maybe we should stop having her hair done as perhaps hairspray just adds to the situation.


60% helpful
Chris Chamberlin answered...

My mother has done the head srcatching thing for years. SHe is into her 8 year with AD. She will do it when she is confussed to upset. She do it when she is concentrating like she is trying to scratch away the fog in her brain or sometimes for no reason at all, almost out of habit.

If there is no sign of scalp issues your mom's urge to scratch could be like my mom's too. I find if I distract her it will ease up some. But no ammount of coaxing to stop will help. She doesn't scratch so hard as to irritate the scalp but she is getting thinner hair.


JuneJohnson answered...

My mom scratches her head all day long. I know that it isn't her scalp as I shower her and do her hair and make sure everything is rinsed well. I keep telling her not to do it. So she will stop for a minute. She shows no interest in doing activities. I do have her help me set the table take out the dishes and knifes and forks and napkins. She will wash the dishes but I have to be right there as she does not rinse the soap off of them. She will be watching t.v. If I walk out of the room and say "Mom what did I miss". Her answer will be "I do not know what we are watching". So the article was helpful to me. Regards, June


71% helpful
tonnyton answered...

I think that patients may scratch repeatedly out of frustration. As they lose memory and the ability to function frustration sets in. as the process continues, habits form. they dont realize they are being repetative.we as caregivers must keep them safe. It may be a mitten on the hand to prevent injuries. Yes i'm sure that you've checked the scalp already. This stage of the disease will change.


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An anonymous caregiver answered...

Once you have eliminated any skin condition .....I would first switch to baby shampoo just for gentleness. Secondly while strange movements with hands are quite common I haven't heard that much about actual scratching, but I am not a professional just 24/7 caregiver of spouse and benefit from support groups input also. Unusual hand movements are common and hers may just have found a place to put her hands to use. Try the hand excercise ball that you simply squeeze for strength (available at drugstores) or perhaps encourage crochet or knitting (if these are already acquired skills she may still have), painting is something many AD patients enjoy.Also when she goes to scratch turn her interest to using her hands to put lotion (again baby lotion good) on her legs and hands instead. Good luck it is tough at best and we just try and try again to find answers. Even the professionals have none, we are all searching for what helps.


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Paulette911 answered...

I am caring for my 57-year-old sister who is five years my junior. She was diagnosed with mild dementia two years ago and is progressively getting worse. She occasionally has the scratching problem to the point of causing sores. Sometimes it is on her head, where her very thin hair shows the sores plainly, or other parts of her body and mostly her forearms. I think she aimlessly scratches until she may find a small raised place on her skin and then keeps picking at it until it becomes a sore. If I don't see it or catch it early she scratches to where it bleeds and causes large scabs - which she often picks off, which causes more bleeding and a larger sore. I have to keep bandages on her most of the time, which it seems she likes to show off giving cause for others to ask "what happened." She especially likes the various cartoon ones.

Just recently she's had problems getting to the bathroom in time. Especially during the night. In two days I had to clean her, her room and the bathroom six times. Needless to say, I was/am at my wit's end and became very upset. I had a 5 bypass heart surgery last year and continuously had to remind myself of her memory problem just to keep myself from having another heart attack because it was such a mess to deal with. Her doctor instructed giving her Imodium and now she has an appointment tomorrow with the doc to see if a new medication is the cause of her diarrhea. I'm afraid she's getting dehydrated.


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adnerb answered...

Dry, itchy skin seems to be quite common. After seeing a dermatologist and visiting various doctors, we switched to hypo-allergenic shampoo/creme rinse, and hypo-allergenic soap for clothes washing (baby or dermatologist tested), and my mom's itching seems a bit better. We also stopped using fabric softener for except for things that get static build-up.

One doctor prescribed an antihistamine that is used specifically for itchy skin, called hydroxyzine, that works almost immediately and is great before bed. One geriatric specialist advised anti-histamines can cause confusion, so we try not to use it too often -- however, my mother will ask for it as it works so well, and I haven't noticed anything unusual when she uses it.


bayou2929 answered...

we are caring for my 82 year old mother. unlike the others in this thread she is unable to communicate what is going on with her CONSTANT HEAD SCRATCH. she does not make sores but does it on and off all day and all night. the doctor says her brain cells are dying and she is reacting to the numbness that comes with that happening. she is simply trying to "un-numb" her brain!? at first we thought it was skin/scalp related. but after washing and re-washing her hair, stopping all products, etc. she would immediately resume scratching. sometimes it is NOT a basic scalp condition. we have found that giving her a small dose of liquid ibuprofen stops her scratching in about 10 minutes and lasts for a few hours.


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esqsss answered...

My Mother experienced fairly extreme scalp itching as her dementia worsened. She also scratched large sores on her head. An over the counter treatment is Scalpicin which did not help her very much. Ultimately, we got a prescription ointment, but I cannot recall its name. It was of some help.


marnie206 answered...

My 96 year old father, with moderate dementia, also scratches constantly, sometimes causing sores. Like Paulette 911 said of her sister, he will find a small, raised place on his arm, neck, chest or back and pick it to death, creating bleeding, sores, scabs, and the cycle begins again. He is driven crazy by what he calls, "The Itch". It might be something different for the doctor thinks it is eczema, and it might be. He gets some relief from cortisone taken both internally and in a cream that is slathered on twice a day. I will consider all I have read here and make some changes where I can, trying to distract him, etc. Thank you all so very much.


vmr316 answered...

My Mom, 82 with dementia, scratches/rubs her head in the exact same area and she now has a bald spot the size of a baseball. We took her to dermatologist, who did a biopsy of the area and it was normal. We have tried prescription medicated shampoos, creams and ointments and nothing has helped. We have tried reminding her, but that doesn't work. Her neurologist that prescribes her dementia medication didn't have any ideas to help her stop. We now are just trying to "live with it".


gerd. answered...

Could it be that there is a link between extremely dry scalp and hair and alzheimers. Could it be that there is not enough bloodstream bringing nourishment to the brain ( and head ) in general.
Maybe a possible partial solution is to bring more nourishment through the skin to the scalp. For example buy good hair oil in health store and massage the head and let it stay as long as possible ( for hours if possible ) before washing out with gentle shampoo.