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.

27 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.

    2. As I lay in my bed in agonizing pain from my own experience with “Hells Itch.” You brought tears to my eyes from laughter.

  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!

  7. I have suffered from Hell’s Itch after even very mild sunburns. Last sunburn, I read that somebody had success using A&D Ointment on the rash and, even though it was 10:00 PM, I immediately went in search of a 24-hour pharmacy. I tried it and it worked for me too. It needed to be reapplied a couple of times per day until the rash subsided, but it reduced the itching within minutes of application.

  8. I am a Hell’s itch veteran. I’ve had it basically every summer. I have a system to manage It. For day 1-2 of burn, go ahead and apply some aloe or sunburn lotion. But thereafter, switch to Benadryl anti itch gel (applied liberally) and keep a soft shirt on at all times. Do not wash the sunburned area. Keep taking 2 Benadryl and two ibuprofen every 4 hours. If an itch attack comes, add more Benadryl gel. Try not to sweat, and stay in air conditioning. Don’t scratch it.

      1. Good to know
        I am about to rip my skin off
        So no scratching, obviously, but what happens if you do scratch??

        1. It just gets worse honestly. You can do it, but it just prolongs it, even though it will feel good for a second or two.

          1. I think the worst is not being able to sleep at night.
            Thank you for your website and blog!!!

  9. I too am currently experiencing this. I got a mild sunburn while floating the river last Saturday on my arms and shoulders and then from the top of my thighs down to my ankles. The sunburn on my upper body healed in 2 days. However, as my arms were healing, my legs became increasingly painful. Seriously, if they can find a way to induce this reaction we will never hear about water boarding again. No one seemed to believe me about the severity of the pain. I struggled to find anything online that matched a description of what I was going through.
    5 days after the initial burn, my husband insisted that I go to the doctor because I was getting like 2 hours of pure exhaustion sleep a night and constantly in teeth gnashing pain. The doctor straight up didn’t believe me as he clearly had no experience with this and I’m sure thought I was some pansy girl (trust me I have experienced multiple broken bones and situations that required stitches, nothing holds a candle to this). He ended up giving me a prescription for pain killers, which honestly did not even help much. Just today I finally found online posts that described what I’m going through.
    I know my description of the pain doesn’t help you any as I’m sure you’ve read all about it and are probably experiencing it yourself since you are on this site, but if you are looking to prevent this in the future I hope you read this. Most people I am hearing got this on their backs which luckily I did not burn myself because I can image that would make sleeping even harder, but because the condition is on my legs, I have had severe swelling to accompany the itch. I retained so much water that I gain EIGHT pounds in water weight (I’m 22-years-old and normally weigh 130 lb now 138). Standing up causes all of the fluid to rush downward, creating the most painful pressure to build that the only reason I’m willing to stand at all is when I have to use the bathroom. If you have found that you are prone to this condition, please please PLEASE avoid getting this on a large portion of your legs. This is a pain I wouldn’t wish on anyone with the hell’s itch alone, don’t put yourself through the added pain of not being able to even put your feet on the floor.
    Trust me, this was a mild sunburn, I have had far worse in the past. Now 6 days after the initial burn I am seeing mild improvements and the rash slightly receding. I have vowed never to burn again because of this situation.

  10. Just went through this for the first time the day before yesterday. Came on suddenly as I was about to go to bed. Terrible experience. Taking a shower (scrubbing the areas) made it much worse. Cortisone 10 didn’t work. Aloe Vera helped. After further online reading, I tried peppermint oil. This did the trick. I also used heating pads. Was then able to sleep with an occasional twitch. Following day used a mixture of peppermint oil and coconut oil. This seems to be the winning combination for my body.

  11. I spent three days on the beach and I put on sunscreen and I still got hells itch this is the first time I’ve gotten it and so far I feel like I’d be better off ripping my flesh off then dealing with the pain it’s self it is horrible to go through.

  12. On my third day of hell’s itch I realized that the burning and itching felt very similar to a reaction I had after being stung by a jelly fish a couple of years ago. My doctor prescribed prednisone and the itching and burning from the sting cleared right up. Even though prednisone is harsh and rough on the body I decided to try it for my hell’s itch. Within eight hours I was feeling relief.

  13. You guys. Hell’s Itch is no joke! I am just now coming off a terrible bout of it that was raging for 6 hours, but it felt like years. One of the worst parts about it is that it spikes your adrenaline soooo much and you just want to rip your skin off and throw anything in sight. So freaking horrible! I had to have a friend run me to the pharmacy to get cortisone cream, benadryl, and lidocaine spray. Nothing was helping. I took two benadryl and consistently applied the cream and spray but everything made it worse. I finally took a very hot shower and got some immediate relief, but as soon as I got out the itch was back in full force. I was screaming, crying. My mom has this when she was younger and went to the emergency room because it is so horrible. In the end, it was peppermint essential oil that gave me enough relief to fall asleep. Never going without sunscreen EVER again.

    1. There are alot of people who say that peppermint oil works. I haven’t tried it myself but if it works for you then spread the word!

  14. I’m dealing with this right now and it is absolutely miserable. I’ve never had it this bad before in my life. It’s 2:48 AM and I can’t sleep a wink! 😩

  15. It’s truly the worst. Like a dope, I tried the aloe vera anti-itch stuff and that made it worse. I finally tried a hot shower and for about 10 minutes, I haven’t been writhing around and shouting obscenities, so I’ll take it. I tried taking Advil also but don’t have any hydrocortisone.

  16. I have the hell’s itch as we speak and it hit me while I was at work. Exactly 48 hours ago I was enjoying my time on a boat with my girlfriend and a few friends and applied sunscreen at the start of my day but never reapplied it being it was somewhat of a cool day. Today at work my back began to itch so I asked a coworker for some lotion which actually made the itch 10 times worse. The itch became so painful I had to leave early and ran to my local CVS and bought Cortizone-10 cream + 24 our Allegra. Both of which helped but nothing has helped more than standing in front of my air conditioning unit that has seemed to stop the painful itch. As soon as I leave the comfort of the cool air the itch returns. For anyone else that reads this that would be my suggestion, cortisone cream antihistamines and standing in front of cool air to soothe the itch and stay in the cool air for as long as you can.

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