It’s happened to many of us. You’ve had a beautiful day outside only to wind up with a less than ideal souvenir — a sunburn. For some people, an already uncomfortable condition can morph into something known to be so unpleasant that it’s been dubbed “hell’s itch.”
Aptly named to convey its severity, hell’s itch refers to a painful itchiness that can emerge a few days after a sunburn.
Although limited research on the condition makes it hard to know exactly how common this is, some guesses suggest 5 to 10 percent of people have dealt with this. We do know that sunburns themselves are extremely common.
Hell’s itch symptoms go beyond that of a typical sunburn. It typically shows up anywhere from 24 to 72 hours after being in the sun. Many people report experiencing it on their shoulders and back, perhaps because these are areas that get a lot of sun exposure. These areas may not always receive enough SPF protection, which can lead to sunburn. It’s not a bad idea to ask someone to help out with these hard to reach spots!
Experiencing itchiness or skin peeling after too much sun exposure isn’t unusual. This itch, though, is reported to go beyond that and is known to be extremely painful. Some people describe an itchiness that’s deep, throbbing, and hard to treat. Other people describe it as if fire ants are crawling and biting at the affected skin.
It isn’t known why this happens or who may be predisposed to this condition. There’s nothing to indicate that people who have had hell’s itch continue to experience the condition alongside every sunburn. That said, the noted, and obvious, precursor to this itch is time spent in the sun.
Although it isn’t clear which factors contribute to hell’s itch, researchers have identified risk factors for sun-related skin damage.
People with lighter skin, and those not typically exposed to the sun for long periods of time, are generally more likely to wind up with red skin after a day beside the pool. Everyone can be affected by sun exposure, though damage is more likely to show up on lighter skin. People with darker skin have more melanin. This helps block out some of the more damaging aspects of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays.
People who spend a lot of time in the mountains may also end up with more sunburns as the sun’s rays can be more intense at higher altitudes.
Most people with this condition do self-diagnose. Much of what’s been written about hell’s itch comes from people on the internet relaying their own experiences with this painful condition. Although it can be extremely unpleasant, hell’s itch isn’t life-threatening and can be treated at home.
If your symptoms otherwise worsen or persist over an extended period of time, you should consult your doctor.
Though it may seem a bit like fighting fire with fire, some people have reported relief from taking hot showers. If you try this method, it’s important to be careful and not overheat or further burn your skin.
Peppermint oil has been rumored to help. Taking an oatmeal bath may also be worth a try, as these are often recommended to relieve itchiness associated with chicken pox. Applying baking soda paste to the affected areas may also offer some people relief, but others report that it doesn’t help them.
Scratching may make the pain worse, so try to control that urge. You can try applying an aloe vera gel or ointment to the area for quick relief, but this may not work for everyone.
Topical ointments are available over the counter and can also provide spot-specific relief. Be sure to look for options containing 1 percent hydrocortisone cream or a 10 percent benzocaine cream. Avoid using any lotion or cream that contains salicylic acid.
If you do choose to see your doctor, they may be able to recommend a prescription-strength anti-itch medication.
Discomfort is common in the short term. This itchy sensation is often described as running deep into the skin and being difficult to calm down. It usually pops up about 48 hours after sun exposure and lasts for about as long.
That said, the sunburn will eventually clear up and the itch should go with it. Once your skin is back on track, be very careful when it comes to prolonged sun exposure. Covering up with clothing, sitting under umbrellas, and wearing a high SPF sunscreen — that you reapply every 80 minutes — can help keep this from happening again.
It’s important to remember to keep an eye on any changes in your skin and to consult your doctor if you notice any pigment or texture changes. Annual skin checks may also be an important addition to your regular healthcare routine. Severe sunburns and continual exposure to the sun increase your risk for skin cancer.
The best way to keep this from happening again is to use caution when out in the sun, especially for long periods of time. It’s been theorized that people who experience hell’s itch may have some kind of genetic predisposition to it, though there isn’t any research to support this particular theory.
People with lighter skin, too, are more susceptible to sunburns. Make sure you’re aware of how much sun exposure you can comfortably tolerate. In all instances, wear sunscreen containing a broad-spectrum SPF designed to protect against UVA and UVB rays. You can learn about the eight best remedies for itching here.
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