If you are here because you are currently suffering from Hell’s Itch and are looking for a fix, here are instructions for immediate relief:
DO NOT USE ALOE VERA, CORTISONE, OR ANY OTHER LOTION – IT WILL MAKE IT WORSE.
- Get some peppermint oil. Or better yet, send someone out for peppermint oil, and proceed to the next step. It can be found in most drug stores, e.g., CVS, Walgreen’s, etc.
- Get in a hot shower. While this might seem counterintuitive when you have a sunburn, the pressure of the water and the heat will trigger pain receptors, which will override the itch.
- Drape a soaking wet towel over your shoulders. Once you get out of the shower, the itch/pain will start up again in a few minutes. If you don’t have the peppermint oil yet, a wet towel will suppress the itch slightly.
- Rub the peppermint oil all over your sunburn. This is the real fix, but you’re not out of the woods yet – it will start out icy-hot, and then will proceed to just heat, and it will more than likely hurt a bit. After 15-20 minutes or so, it will cool down, and as it cools down, the painful itch will fade away to a more manageable level.
- Take an antihistamine. Something like Zyrtec or Claritin.
The above steps will get you about 8-10 hours of relief, so you may have to repeat at least once; Hell’s Itch tends to resolve itself after 24-48 hours.
Now, the backstory:
Hell’s Itch, sometimes referred to as Devil’s Itch, is the most debilitating, maddening, distressing ailment I have experienced. A rare side effect of sunburn, it causes a deep, painful itch, that is all-consuming – you literally cannot focus on anything else, and scratching it does nothing but make it hurt even worse. It supposedly affects between 5% – 10% of people with sunburn, but there is very little medical literature out there on it, so the cause is unknown. I suspect it has something to do with my autoimmune response, as my body is known to overreact to stuff, but the one thing that I do know is that it absolutely sucks.
So last weekend, I took my wife and kids to North Beach, MD, for a quick little getaway. All was normal – I played with my lads in the water, and got a slight sunburn on my shoulders and the top of my back. Really – it was one of the mildest sunburns I’ve had (and I really don’t burn that much), so I didn’t think anything of it. Fast forward two days later, and my back suddenly starts itching at work. It wasn’t that bad at first, but scratching it did nothing. But it just got progressively more intense, to the point that I had to start rubbing my back on the wall corner, every few feet, just to get down the hallway. I finally decided that I should split and go home, but the drive home was even worse – with nothing to scratch my back with, my body started involuntarily twitching, causing me to jerk the wheel several times, but I did finally make it home safe.
Once I got home, I made a terrible mistake. At this point, I was thinking that it was just run-of-the-mill sunburn, so I asked my wife Ali to rub some aloe vera on it. This EXPLODED both the pain and the itch. All of a sudden, it felt like a million ants were crawling under my skin, and every single one had a knife, and was repeatedly shanking me with it. I became completely incapacitated – I couldn’t think straight, involuntarily cried out, start rolling on the floor – it was literally driving me nuts. I was ready to flay my skin off with a razor blade, it was so intense. Finally, some survival instinct kicked in, and I took off my clothes and hobbled to the shower, and found relief, even if only temporary. This gave me a few minutes to clear my head and think about what to do next. So I had Ali bring me my phone, and I start looking the symptoms up. While there is not a lot of medical literature on Hell’s Itch, there are certainly plenty of people on the internet who have experienced it as well, and most of them were recommending the peppermint oil (which I didn’t even know was a thing, by the way). So I got out of the shower, popped a Zyrtec, and started getting dressed to go to the store, when I got hit with another wave. While the shower does offer temporary relief, it only lasts for a few minutes once you get out, so in order for me to make it all the way to the store, I had to drape a soaking wet towel over my shoulders like a cape. I put on a windbreaker jacket over that, which became immediately soaked, so I’m sure I looked pretty stupid in the Rite Aid, furiously browsing the aromatherapy section for peppermint oil, and dripping everywhere.
Once I got back, I had Ali grease me up with the peppermint oil. It was icy-hot at first, but then it began to heat up, like a very strong muscle ointment, except the pain was very sharp – I still felt like I was being stabbed repeatedly, but now the knives were scalding hot! The heat became more and more intense, until it finally peaked, and then cooled off, giving off a “cool mint” kind of feel, and reducing the bloody fucking itch to a level that could be dealt with.
I was able to fall asleep, but I awoke around 4:00 AM with a second bout. I didn’t want to wake up Ali, so I tied a sock to a wooden backscratcher, doused it with peppermint oil, and self-medicated. It went through the “heat cycle” again, and once it cooled off, I was able to get back to sleep.
The next morning, I had a milder version of the itch, so I had Ali grease me up again before I left for work (and popped another Zyrtec). I smelled like a menthol candy cane, but I was able to make it through the day, and while the itch came back that night, it never progressed beyond the “minor annoyance” level. Most cases clear up between 24-48 hours, so I guess I’m good now.
Lessons learned? I have decided to never go outside, ever agin. Also, I now have about $200 worth of peppermint oil in my medicine cabinet, just in case.