Sunburn can be a painful consequence of spending too much time in the sun or a tanning bed. In rare cases, people with sunburn may also experience an extreme, deep, painful itching called hell's itch.
Also known as devil's itch or fire ant itch, some people describe it as an unrelenting itch that can keep them awake at night and persist for days while the skin heals.
Read on to learn how to treat hell's itch and what to avoid while the skin is healing.
Most treatments for hell's itch are home remedies. People can take a variety of steps at home to help soothe the itch and enable the skin to heal itself as quickly as possible.
The following treatments may be helpful:
- Take cover. The last thing sunburned skin needs is more sun exposure. Avoid the sun between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm, and seek shade when outside. Sunburned skin may be too painful or sensitive for sunscreen lotion, so wearing long-sleeved clothing and staying in the shade is often a more comfortable choice.
- Take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Medications such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or naproxen can help relieve the pain and inflammation from hell's itch.
- Try an oral antihistamine. Drugs commonly used for allergy symptoms, such as Benadryl, may reduce itching and help a person sleep at night if hell's itch is keeping them awake.
- Use cool compresses. A cool, wet towel or washcloth can provide relief from the burn and may help ease the itchy feeling.
- Take a lukewarm bath with colloidal oatmeal. This remedy has been known to help stop the itch from chicken pox, poison ivy, and eczema. Colloidal oatmeal also has anti-inflammatory properties.
- Use aloe vera. This traditional sunburn remedy also has wound-healing effects. Use aloe vera extract or gel without added ingredients, such as numbing agents, fragrances, or alcohol, which may irritate the skin.
- Cortisone cream. An over-the-counter cream that contains cortisone can help with hell's itch. Cortisone helps calm inflammation in the skin and may ease the itching temporarily.
- Drink plenty of water. Drinking plenty of water helps the skin stay hydrated and reduces dryness. Drinking a sports drink with electrolytes may be helpful if there is a risk of dehydration.
Some things may make hell's itch worse or cause further skin injury. People with hell's itch should avoid:
- Using topical pain relief or numbing creams. Research has found that gels with the pain reliever benzocaine did not alleviate itching caused by sunburn.
- Scratching. Scratching provides relief for only a moment before the itch returns. With a sunburn, scratching can damage the tender skin, increasing pain and prolonging the healing process.
- Popping blisters. Severe sunburns may cause blisters, but popping them will make the pain worse and open up the skin to infection. Popping blisters can also cause more scarring and skin damage.
- Using greasy lotions. Moisturizing ingredients such as mineral oil, butter, plant oils, and petrolatum can trap the heat in the skin, making the pain and itching worse. Use light, oil-free moisturizers or aloe vera to help with dryness and peeling.
- Putting ice directly on the skin. Ice is too cold for the skin and can hinder healing. It can even cause frostbite in some cases. Instead, use cool, wet towels or covered ice packs designed for use on the skin.
- Taking long baths or showers. Bathing for too long pulls moisture from the skin, which can make the itching worse.
Hell's itch follows sunburn, though scientists do not know why it occurs in some people and not others.
If a person stays in the sun for extended periods without proper protection, the sun's powerful UV rays can damage the skin. The top layers of the skin can burn, causing redness, pain, and blistering.
Mild itching is a common symptom of sunburn, but severe itching is uncommon. The skin contains nerve endings that send signals to the brain about pain and itching. One theory about hell's itch is that these nerve endings become damaged or aggravated, sending rapid itching signals to the brain as the skin goes through its healing process.
While people with lighter skin and eyes may burn more quickly in the sun, they are not necessarily more prone to hell's itch. Anyone with a severe sunburn can experience hell's itch.
No one can predict whether a sunburn will cause hell's itch. However, people can avoid developing hell's itch by taking proper precautions against sunburns, such as:
- Applying sunscreen to exposed skin daily. People should use a daily moisturizer with added SPF on exposed areas of the skin, such as the face and neck.
- Being generous with sunscreen. Many people do not apply enough sunscreen to protect their skin completely. Adults need about 1 ounce for their whole body, which is a palm full or enough to fill a shot glass.
- Applying sunscreen frequently. People should always reapply sunscreen after swimming and toweling off. They should also reapply it at least every 2 hours.
- Using broad-spectrum sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher. This will protect the skin from all the sun's rays.
- Covering up. Wear hats and long-sleeved shirts on days when sun exposure may be more prolonged than usual.
A range of sunscreen is available for purchase online.
Hell's itch can be painful and even excruciating in some cases. However, the itching will usually resolve within a few days as the skin heals.
People should see a doctor if any of these problems occur:
- The sunburn causes severe blistering over a significant portion of the body.
- The sunburn is accompanied by a fever, chills, nausea, or confusion. These symptoms could be an indication of sun poisoning, which will require medical care.
- Red streaks or pus appear on the skin. This may be a sign of an infection.
- A young child gets a severe sunburn.
Treating hell's itch with home remedies and avoiding sunburn in the future is often the best course of action.