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.

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