Hell’s Itch Causes, Symptoms, and Home Remedies to Stop it Fast

Beach Goers in Mexico - UV exposure can cause hell's itch

Mention the term “hell’s itch,” and most people who have had it will immediately cringe. It is one possible consequence of spending too much time in the sun without appropriate sunscreen protection, leading to sunburn.

What is Hell’s Itch?

Also known as suicide itch or devil’s itch, hell’s itch is an acute, intolerable, painful itching sensation that can occur as a result of a sunburn.

The itching occurs in brief, intense pulses and usually begins 24 to 72 hours after exposing your skin to excessive UV radiation from the sun (without proper sunscreen protection), leading to sunburn.

Most sufferers describe sunburn itch as a maddening experience. Some liken it to a hostile invasion by an army of fire ants under your skin – with the ants crawling and biting at the same time – while others equate it to continuous grazes with a sharp sandpaper under the skin.

People on Reddit narrate tales of “writhing on the floor” and “getting on the knee crying.” Given the picture these experiences paint, it is hardly surprising that people throw around words such as devil, hell, and suicide to describe sunburn itch.

Driving the whole point home, Dr. Martin Steinhoff of University College Dublin in Ireland, says that, “It [hell’s itch] can be as severe as chronic pain. It can lead to suicide, to sleep deprivation, to depression, it can lead to aggressiveness.”

What Causes Hell’s Itch? – Why Does Sunburn Itch So Bad?

Sunburn itch occurs as a result of UV radiation damage to the outermost layer of the skin (the epidermis). This exposes and activates the nerve endings in the dermis (the second layer of the skin. The skin manifests this in an intense itching sensation, the hell’s itch. It is, however, not yet understood how the itch occurs, at least on a molecular level, Dr. Steinhoff says.

Who Is At Risk of Hell’s Itch?

Sunburn can afflict anyone, but not every case of sunburn will involve itching. Scientists estimate that hell’s itch affects only 5 to 10 percent of all cases of sunburn. On the same note, sunburn itch can occur in patients with mild sunburn just as much as it can occur in patients with severe sunburn. It is also not yet clear if there is a genetic predisposition to sunburn itch.

The main factors that determine your susceptibility to sunburn and, therefore, the risk of getting hell’s itch include:

  1. Skin color. Light-skinned people – especially those with ashen skin – are more predisposed to sunburn than their darker-colored counterparts. The latter have higher levels of the skin’s protective pigment, melanin.
  2. Duration of time spent in the sun. The longer you take in the sun, the more your skin gets exposed to UV radiation. Without adequate sunscreen protection, the exposure can ultimately cause sunburn and, by extension, the devil’s itch.
  3. The intensity of the sun. Geographic location, season, and time of day all affect how intense the sun is, and thus how fast it can cause sunburn and the associated symptoms.

Hell’s Itchy Symptoms

Unbearable itching is the most apparent symptom of hell’s itch. It occurs 1 to 3 days after being in the sun. The itching aside, you are also likely to experience other symptoms such as redness and pain, and for more severe burns, swelling and blisters. You may also develop nausea, headache, fever, chills, and feel weak if the sunburn is severe. A few days down the line, the skin will typically start peeling as the body replaces the UV-damaged cells with new ones.

How Long Does Hell’s Itch Last?

Sunburn itch lasts 12 to 48 hours. It tends to occur more commonly on the shoulders and back. These spots typically get the most exposure to the sun. They are also hard to reach, and as a result, they often get inadequate sunscreen protection, especially if you cannot get a helping hand.

How to Stop Sunburn Itch Fast – Proven Hell’s Itch Remedies

Sunburn itch is often so intense as to be debilitating. Unlike most cases of itching, such as those caused by dry skin or allergic reactions, hell’s itch usually doesn’t respond well to treatment with antihistamines such as Benadryl. What is more, scratching the skin only makes things worse.

How then can you cure sunburn itch? Are there any treatments or home remedies proven to offer relief from the insanity-causing itch while preventing further skin damage? Here are some of them:

1. Take Very Hot Showers

A hot shower sounds like a counterproductive hell’s itch treatment since sunburn is to blame for the problem to start with, but most people will swear to the effectiveness of this simple home remedy. Hot showers activates the pain nerves found in the skin, which then helps to stop the itch, says Dr. Steinhoff. For fast relief, take prolonged hot showers every time the itching wave sets in.

2. Apply Peppermint Oil

While lotions and oils tend to be a natural choice for treatment of most cases of itching, the exact choice of lotion or oil does really matter when it comes to sunburn itch. Aloe vera gel, for example, will not work for most people as it only offers superficial soothing. Instead, try applying peppermint oil. Some people have also reported success with calamine lotion as well as A&D lotion.


3. Take an Oatmeal Bath

Oatmeal baths are a popular home remedy for general body itching. Apparently, their effectiveness holds true to sunburn itch as well. Soak in a bathtub of boiling water to which raw oatmeal has been added for 20-25 minutes to see if that helps to get rid of the itching.

4. Soak in Baking Soda Bath

Baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) helps to balance skin pH which may, in turn, help to offer fast relief for the itching sensation commonly associated with sunburns. Below is how to use the baking soda to stop the problem:

  1. Add 1 cup of baking soda to a tub of water, then stir thoroughly.
  2. Soak in the tub for 20 minutes.
  3. Let the water dry naturally from your skin.

5. Use Vinegar

Vinegar can also help to stop hell’s itch fast by balancing the pH of the skin. The itch relief action of vinegar is attributed to the acetic acid in it. To use this home remedy to soothe your troubled skin, mix vinegar and water in equal proportions, then swab it to the affected areas with a clean cotton wool or washcloth.

How to Prevent Hell’s Itch (Sunburn Itch)

Effective sunburn itch prevention boils down to the prevention of sun damage in the first place through proper outdoor practices. This will not only help you avoid the itching, but also sun damage related skin problems such as premature aging and skin cancer. Here are some tips to consider:

  1. Protect your skin with Ideal SPF sunscreen. A broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at not less than 30, such as EltaMD, is recommended. Slather it generously on exposed parts of your skin at least half an hour before going outside and every two hours while enjoying the sun. Pay attention to your shoulders, neck and other hard to reach spots. Ask for a hand if necessary.
  2. Cover your body well with protective clothing. Long-sleeves, broad-brimmed hats, and sunglasses that shield UV rays are good starting points.
  3. Time your outdoor activities effectively. The sun is typically most damaging between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Staying under the shade during this time will go a long way in preventing sunburn and the associated hell’s itch.

References

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