As a writer, I often do research. The most valuable tool in my arsenal is the ability to look up stuff online. One day in 2015, that same tool also helped my daughter.
The Labor Day holiday is next weekend and people will take the opportunity for one last summer romp in the sunshine. It is a fair bet that some of them will sport brilliant sunburns. A small percentage of those will suffer a condition known as “Hell’s Itch.”
If you’ve never heard about it, you’re not alone. I only know because one Easter Sunday, when my daughter was in elementary school, we came home from a 5-day beach trip. By mid-afternoon, Kayla was crying and writhing on the floor on her back in agony. I knew she was sincere but couldn’t figure out what was going on. Mark suggested Benadryl and Tylenol, which gave her some relief, but by 5:30, the pain was intense. Kayla described it as a thousand knives stabbing deep into her back, causing great pain and a burning itch. Arriving at the urgent care center 30 minutes before they closed on Easter Sunday helped us get speedy service. However, I was annoyed at the physician because she didn’t take my daughter’s complaints seriously. I was persistent enough to force an antihistamine shot and a prescription for stronger antihistamines than Benadryl.
The shot helped, but it wore off by 10:00 p.m. so I tried to follow the doctor’s advice and put cortisone cream and Benadryl cream on her. As soon as I got it on her, I had to start wiping it off. The creams only made her hurt worse. By that time, Mark was also awake, so after we gave Kayla an oatmeal bath, the three of us sat up waiting for the prescription antihistamine to take effect. While we were sitting up, I googled “intense sunburn itch” and that’s when I first learned about Hell’s Itch.
In 2015, the medical community had not yet recognized the condition. But the descriptions and advice from the people who had suffered from it proved invaluable to us that evening. (The condition is slowly gaining recognition but I’m not sure how much.)
Hell’s Itch only happens to someone who has acquired a strong sunburn to an area of the body. For reasons no one knows, about 48 hours later, a sufferer experiences an unbearable sensation that runs in waves over the sunburnt areas. Even if you are one of the 5 - 10% of people who ever experience this, it doesn’t happen every time you get sunburned. Some people experience it once and then don’t have it happen again for 20 years, even if they get sunburned in the meantime. In almost everyone, the symptoms subside on their own after 8 to 48 hours.
The stories I found on the internet described the same symptoms that Kayla was experiencing. One sufferer was a former marine who admitted that he was embarrassed that this—whatever—had brought him to his knees. Another was a former paratrooper who said the same thing. The adults who described it said that it felt like fire ants were crawling underneath your skin, constantly biting.
A very important point to remember if you encounter Hell’s Itch is that the normal sunburn remedies—aloe vera, cortisone and antihistamine creams—only make the itch worse.
There were only three things that seemed to help the people who experienced this, and two of them were the opposite of what you would do for a normal sunburn. The first remedy that gave most people relief was to take a scalding hot shower for at least 15 to 20 minutes. The second remedy was peppermint oil, not something I keep on hand. The third remedy that helped was a prescription antihistamine. (Not all sunburn specialists agree antihistamines work, but they did for Kayla). The brand name for the one that helped Kayla is Atarax, and the generic is something like hydroxyzine HCL. Basic pain relievers like Tylenol and Advil also helped, although without the antihistamines the most they did was take the edge off.
True to my research, Kayla was fine by the following Tuesday. But I hope I never see her in such agony ever again. And if you find someone who is experiencing similar symptoms, please don’t think they’re making things up. They are not making it up, and they are really hurting.