Beware Hell’s Itch!

Our Dinner Table Doctor’s (DTD) education on this particular malady occurred in a most unfortunate manner, since he was the victim.

We were on a lovely vacation in Marco Island, Florida. As expected, our pale northeastern Ohio skin was ill-prepared for the continuous rays of sunshine. Even though we lathered 30+ sunscreen all over ourselves at regular intervals, we all experienced some sunburn. My husband’s was a direct result of his need to “get in his steps” by walking up and down the beach without a shirt. (If I sound slightly annoyed by this, I am; see my post titled “A Journey of a Thousand Miles…”) I was barely sunburnt because I had the good sense to spend most of my time lounging under an umbrella with a book.

Still, his burn was by no means the worst he’s ever had. In fact it was pretty minor, so that night when it began to itch a little, we were not concerned. Being a kind-hearted wife, I put some aloe all over his back and we went to bed.

The next morning our DTD had a harrowing tale to tell during breakfast. He woke up around 1 AM because his annoying itch had morphed into extreme pain. His back “felt like there were pins sticking him under his skin!” Was the sunburn worse than he thought? Was he having some sort of allergic reaction to the aloe? Were there actual pins under his skin?! He tried using a towel to scratch his back and the pain grew more intense.

In an attempt to distract himself from his agony, he began to research his condition online. He googled “severe pain after sunburn” and his search led to several sources citing the disturbing reality of Hell’s itch. Personal blogs to Good Housekeeping Magazine to an article by a Cleveland Clinic dermatologist, all referred to a deep and excruciating pain which randomly occurs a day or two after a sunburn. It has been compared to shingles pain and many describe it as “fire ants biting under the skin.” There is no sure-fire treatment, but some people suggest baking soda paste, peppermint oil, Benadryl, or even a hot shower. No one seems sure why it happens. You could have 100 sunburns in your life and never experience Hell’s itch. It typically occurs on a person’s back or shoulders, which is often hard to reach when applying sunscreen. The condition usually goes away after several hours.

DTD’s experience led to a lengthy discussion about sunburn, heat rashes, and sun poisoning. You’ve heard this advice before: always wear sunscreen of at least SPF 30 and apply it often and liberally; wear clothing with sun protection when you’re spending a lot of time in the sun; don’t let cloudy days fool you – you still need protection. With the name Hell’s itch, you certainly don’t want to take any chances. If you’re worried about a burn, or experience fever or chills, SEE YOUR DOCTOR!

Our DTD was not in pain by the time he shared his traumatic tale, and his condition lasted about eight hours. Apparently he did not sleep most of the night, while I was blissfully unaware of his plight until I sat down for breakfast!

For more information about Hell’s itch, check out these sources:

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