Hell’s Itch: The Worst Form of Travel Sunburn

hell's itch

If you’ve ever had a sunburn, you probably know that it’s pretty bad and usually preventable. You can wear sunscreen, sit in the shade, or just not go outside when it’s too hot. I chose to do none of those things, so I got a sunburn. It was a pretty moderate sunburn on my back, but it felt worth it to go snorkeling in the Thai islands. I thought it would heal within a few days, and that would be that.  I’ve had sunburns before, and that’s how it went. But that’s not how it went when I got hell’s itch.

Hell’s itch is something that happens 48 hours after a sunburn, and it’s possibly the most painful experience I’ve ever had, and that includes spinal fusion surgery. Hell’s itch lives up to its name in that regard, and is an intense pins and needles sensation at the area of the sunburn. It feels like fire ants are crawling inside your skin, and comes in short, intense waves. It’s honestly not describable. The urge to itch is practically uncontrollable; I now understand how people with madness feel. Hell’s itch is not a choice, it’s a brutality that comes with traveling.

There are entire communities dedicated to hell’s itch. They talk the unbearable pain and the feeling of powerlessness that comes with it. Writing on the floor and alternating between hot showers, cooling powder and large doses of Ibuprofen is just par for the course with hell’s itch. During a particularly intense bout of it, I felt like ripping off my flesh and exposing my raw, unadorned skin to the elements. Yes, it’s actually that bad.

Fortunately, only 5% to 10% of people have reported experiencing hell’s itch along with a sunburn, but there’s no real medical science behind it. Nobody knows what causes it and why only certain people get it. It might be genetic, but if it is, it seems like something that you’d think evolution would have gotten rid of long ago. It’s not like our ancestors had mass produced gels and creams. And even if they did, they spent way more time in the sun than we ever will.

So of course, I got it, although it hasn’t lasted as long as last time I got sick while traveling. Still, there’s something to be said for experiencing one of the worst pains imaginable. It might just be the heat in Thailand, but there are community reports of people getting hell’s itch from just minor sunburns. And frankly, I don’t think my case sounds as bad as some others. I had some intense muscle spasms, but nothing that required hospitalization. It’s lasted about a day now, but the worst of it was when I wasn’t prepared.

Mental fortitude is the best way to deal with hell’s itch. If you know it’s coming, and you know what the pain feels like, then you can steel yourself for it. But if you don’t know whats happening, then it really can knock you for a loop. Just a few days ago, I had no idea something like hell’s itch existed. But now that I know of it, I’ll always think of it as a possibility when I get a sunburn. So next time, I’ll be more prepared and wear better sunscreen; otherwise hell’s itch might return with a vengeance.

10 thoughts on “Hell’s Itch: The Worst Form of Travel Sunburn

  1. My daughter gets it (so does my husband). I am commenting because she just had another bout with it after getting a bad sunburn while away with her team in Florida. It doesn’t happen until about 48 hours after the sunburn and it almost caused me to take her to the ER. It’s that bad! (Yes, you would think that she would be better with the sun screen). Anyway, I seemed to have hit on a good treatment. (The other 2 times she had it, nothing worked!!!… even the pediatrician’s ideas didn’t help). Do not use any products with lidocaine .. makes it worse. Most anti itch creams do nothing. Aloe makes it worse. This time (by pure luck) we seemed to stop the pain with a long shower starting with cold water and then gradually warming to Luke warm. We ran the tub and added baby oatmeal bath stuff. She soaked in between showering. We did 2 ES Tylenol, 1 Benadryl and then slathered her with calomine lotion. The results were great. She went from literally screaming to totally fine. Could be any of these things.. or just hitting on the right combination. But I wanted to share in case it helps anyone!!!! (I have a feeling that different things help different people… but it’s worth a try)

  2. Words will never be enough to describe the itch. It got so bad I took off my belt and whipped myself for 5 minutes hoping that pain would provide relief. It was then I discovered pain and itch could exist simultaneously. If someone would have told me rolling in a kiddie pool of live scorpions would have helped, I wouldn’t have even questioned it. I have vowed to never again get a sunburn!

    1. That’s horrible! It’s actually the worst thing ever, and I’m, like you, overcautious if anything now. It’s just so not worth it.

  3. Calling it an “itch” is an understatement. I suffered through this three different times as a young adult, and then just learned to stop taking my shirt off at the beach, and have been torture free ever since. Even though I got burned all over on each occasion, it was only ever on my back, with each agonizing episode lasting 1-2 hours. There was no google back then, but I think I eventually found some relief by laying on bags of ice until the sensation passed. The people I was traveling with thought I had lost my mind. There truly is no describing this sensation except as the ultimate torture.

  4. I found that bananas work amazingly well for this, while it may seem gross, just try rubbing a banana peel all over the afflicted regions of your body. While this isn’t scientifically proven I have found that bananas help with many different skin problems, try it for yourself. As bananas are a natural thing plant, even if grown with the use of chemicals the properties of the peel remain almost the same, so it can’t hurt to try using it once. Initially there is a light itch, but it’s far more tolerable than the Hells Itch is. Continue to reapply for continued effect.

  5. I’m currently dealing with this. It’s always on my chest! I probably get it once a year. I don’t even describe it as painful it’s just a completely unbearable feeling. It makes me want to scream, cry and pull my hair out all at the same time!

    Anyway, I read online to use cortisone cream, take Benadryl and an anti inflammatory. I don’t know which one did it but I did all 3 yesterday and it relieved the itch.

  6. I have just come out the other side of this, it is my second visit to hell, my first trip there was horrific as I didn’t have all the information to hand such as this site. I am ex military and have experienced some very painful things in my life, once having a dislocated shoulder being put back in whilst the bone was also broken. However, I would happily go through that again than this horrendous torture! If the CIA or MI5 aren’t using this as a method of pursuation then they should. I remember wriggling round and crying not knowing what the hell to do. Anyone who hasn’t had it doesn’t understand and for all thth people NO ITS NOT PRICKLY HEAT OR SUNBURN ITCH!!!!

    I trutr everything and nothing seemed to work. I saw everyone say hot shower but just couldn’t bring myself to do that, it didn’t seem right! However my bravado ended about 0200hrs this morning and I jumped in the shower, warm at first then turned the heat up to as much as I could stand. My main worry was what if it makes it worse, if that could ever be possible or my other thought was how could this possibly help, heat onto heat, it just doesn’t seem logical. But believe me, do it, DO IT NOW!! I got back into bed after an hour of pure bliss in the shower, yes a bit of pain but nothing like the suicidal insanity fire ant pain the arse please let me die itch!! Within @5 minutes of being in bed I was asleep, I woke up at about half seven with the itch back, so jumped in the shower again, BOOOM! itch was gone again for a few hours . If you’re reading this now and are experiencing this pure evil, then I feel your pain and suffering, but honestly, jump in a hot shower. I was so unsure about doing this, as much as I read it worked but honestly, it was the best thing I done.

    If you think about it, the itching is your body realising histamines to heal itself. A hot shower will open up your pores and help those histamines to get out. There’s no scientific or medical fact behind that, it’s just what I believe. Good luck and let’s all apply sun ccream from here on in!

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