Hell’s Itch – No Laughing Matter


 

Good morning Everyone!

My Easter Sunday plans did not include spending the afternoon staring with concern at my daughter writhing on the floor, rubbing her back on a towel and crying.  We had just returned from a five-day trip to the beach that morning. While we were there, Kayla spent one glorious five-hour stint in the water playing with some friends she had made that morning and wound up with an equally splendid sunburn on her back.  Until Easter afternoon, it had been pretty much like any other sunburn, but what Kayla was experiencing then was a whole different order of magnitude.  There was no doubt in my mind that she was sincere but I couldn’t figure out what was going on.

Mark woke up just as I was getting ready to take her somewhere for help, and suggested instead that I first give her Benadryl and some Tylenol.  I did, and it seemed to help for about an hour and a half, then everything started all over again.  While Kayla was calm, we asked her what it felt like, and she said when the itch got bad and she started crying, she felt like she had a thousand knives stabbing deep into her back, causing great pain and a deep, burning itch.  When the itch started to come back after an hour and a half, we gave her two Advil and I took her to our local Doc-In-The-Box.

Apparently, arriving at 5:30 p.m. on Easter Sunday when the clinic closes at 6 ensures swift service.  Kayla was their only patient.  I was a little annoyed at the doctor because I didn’t think she really was taking Kayla and me seriously, but she did consent to give Kayla a shot of Benadryl and prescribe a stronger antihistamine in case the Benadryl didn’t work.  She also told me to get some Cortisone cream and Benadryl cream to put on Kayla’s back.

I called Mark at 5:55 – the prescription had been called into our local pharmacy, which closed at 6, and Kayla and I were about 30 minutes away – and he won Father-of-the-Year award for making it to CVS in less than four minutes to pick up the prescription.

We were fortunate that he was able to do so, because about 10:00 p.m., by the time the Benadryl shot had worn off, Kayla came into our bedroom and woke me up to tell me that her back had started itching again and she wanted me to put the cortisone cream and Benadryl cream on her.  I carefully applied the lotions, but by the time I finished, she was back to writhing in agony again and begging me to take the lotions back off.  Mark woke up because he heard us.  After I wiped the creams back off as best I could,  we had Kayla take an Aveeno oatmeal bath.  (Another remedy suggested by the doctor.)

After she got out of the bath, her back had calmed down a little again, so the three of us sat up for a while.  While we sat,  I did what any stumped parent would do – I googled “intense sunburn itch.”  The results surprised me.

Apparently, there are a number of people out there – adults as well as children – that have experienced the same thing.   The people who have had this happen to them called it either “Hell’s Itch” or ICI – short for “insanity causing itch.”  The medical sites didn’t have a description of it or a name for it, but I know from our experience with Kayla that it exists.  All of the stories I found on the internet described the same symptoms that Kayla had experienced.  One sufferer was a former marine who admitted that he was embarrassed that this – whatever it is – 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 you.

A very important point to remember if you encounter this is that all of 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, which is not something I keep on hand.  The third remedy that helped was the prescription antihistamine.  The brand name for it is Aderax and the generic is something like hydroxidine HCL.  With Kayla, basic pain relievers like Tylenol and Advil also helped, although without the antihistamines the most they did was take the edge off.

Hell’s Itch only happens to someone who has acquired a decent sunburn to some area of the body.  For reasons no one was certain of, about 48 hours later, each sufferer experienced an unbearable sensation that ran in waves over the places that were sunburnt.  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 will experience it once and then not 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.

All’s well that end’s well, of course, and by Tuesday, Kayla was back to normal.  Still, I wanted to share this with you in case you ever end up on the floor yourself writhing with this unbearable sensation, or, even worse, someone you love does.  As for me, I think I’m going to buy some peppermint oil and keep it on hand, just in case.

Have a great day!

Nancy

UPDATE:  7/8/2016 – Thank you to each of the over 11,000 people who have viewed this post since it was first published.  Please if you have time, look at some of my other posts.  I write about all kinds of things, with entertaining results.

I also need to remind everyone that I am not a doctor, and this blog post is not meant to give medical advice.  It is meant to let people who are experiencing this terrible condition that they are not alone, they are not crazy and there are some things that some people have found helpful.

A special thank you to the people who take the time to share their own experiences.  I know when Kayla went through this, I was infinitely relieved when I read about other people experiencing the same thing.

Finally, use your own judgment about when to see a physician.  In my opinion, if you don’t earlier, you DEFINITELY need to see a physician if you experience these symptoms more than 2 or 3 days at the latest.  (If it were me, I’m not sure I could make it as far as day 3).  Regular Hell’s Itch doesn’t seem to normally last that long.

 

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37 responses to “Hell’s Itch – No Laughing Matter

  1. I’m so sorry she experienced that (and you with her). I had that once, about 20 years ago. I didn’t know what it was, and it was mercifully short (if 8-10 hours of that can be called “short”). Normal things like aloe, etc, indeed didn’t help; what did seem to help, for me at the time, was keeping it wet. Showers, and then a round of compresses, constantly being re-wet and re-applied. And then it passed, and I haven’t had it since (but I do try to be extra careful about sunscreen, because I NEVER want to feel that again)

    Glad your Kayla is better now!

    • I am too! I hope you never have to experience it again, either. If there is one silver lining from all of this, it is that I strongly suspect Kayla will never be quite so cavalier about sunscreen again!

  2. Sounds horrible!! I’m so sorry Kayla had to go through this. Thanks for sharing as I did not know about this terrible itch.

  3. Nancy Raven Smith

    Ever since I was a kid, when I got a sunburn (not the kind you’re describing, but severe) I would always take a very hot shower and use ivory soap on the area. Any pain went away almost immediately and the actual sunburn would be tan by the next morning. I see from what you’ve said, that it must be the hot water that helps it. Very interesting.

  4. I’ve never heard of this–thankfully! Glad your daughter (and you) have gotten relief.

  5. I had this two years ago after a trip to the beach. Two days later, wham, hit me like a ton of fire ants under my skin. This did bring me to me knees several times and it emotionally broke me when it hit. I was in tears, nothing helped. I didn’t go to the docs, i just suffered through it the best i could. For two days, the waves hit me on and off, i couldn’t have a shirt on and no creams what so ever! i just laid still as possible in bed as not to disrupt the nerve endings. I really thought i was going to go insane. I am very scared anytime I get the slightest burn, i never ever want that to happen again.

  6. Austin Hunter

    Your not suppose to scratch it just makes it worse that’s what brings you to your knees and really makes you cry I get this about once a year… it’s dreadful. If it ever happens again. DON’T SCRATCH if you don’t the itching is 10x less painful.

  7. I have also suffered this 3 times, once when I was about 14 on my legs, didn’t know what it was but thankfully it only lasted about 8 hours. Got it again in my 20’s on my back on two different occasions after moderate sunburn. Unbelievable, insane itch, nothing but nothing seemed to help, got an emergency appointment at my doctors who gave me calamine lotion. My sister tried to put this on my back but it drove me totally mad!! Lasted in waves for about 2-3 days, couldn’t work or do anything. Got sun burn on my back again 3 days ago when on holiday in south of France (I’m 38 now). Totally freaked out when I realised I’d been burnt. Started goggling to see if anyone else knew about this crazy itch and if there were any cures/remedies for it. Applying heat seemed to come up time and again as well as antihistamines. My wife happened to have antihistamines for hay fever so I took them immediately and applied after sun lotion on for the next 2 days constantly to try and recover my skin a bit. I am still itch free at the moment and am becoming more confident that I may have avoided it (although I stocked up on antihistamines and got peppermint lotion as well).
    Anyone who says don’t scratch it, or lie still when you get it, apply aloe vera etc seriously I’m not being rude you might have experienced normal sun burn itch but you haven’t experienced the insanity itch and I hope you never do.

  8. I am 30 years old and had never experienced “hells itch” until this morning. I went swimming with my kids a couple days ago returned home with a decent sunburn showered put aloe on it for 2 days. This morning I returned home from taking my wife to work, take a quick shower get out. Then it started it was so unbearable. It really feels like a million ants are under your skin biting you. I tried putting more aloe it made it worse. Then tried baby lotion worse! So I jump in a cold shower it made it worse. So while holding a towel on my back I googled sunburn crazy itch stinging. That’s when I learned about hells itch. Said hot hot shower. So jump in a really hot shower that sucked so bad because the hot water burns so bad. But anything is better than hells itch. Hot shower worked. I still kinda get a few itches here and there but it calmed it almost all the way. Worse pain ever! I’ll be drenched in sunblock from now on. I never wanna feel hells itch again in my life!

  9. Thank you for writing this! I am currently in the throes of ICI as I type. It started last night and completely took me out. I was the most excruciating experience I have ever had, and I have had some good ones! I went the scalding hot water/benadryl/ibprofen route which helped a great deal. Keep spreading the word! More people need to know about this!

  10. I had this happen last year in Hawaii. I have had sunburns before (with itching later on as they healed)…but THIS (Hell’s itch) was INSANE! I am so sorry your daughter went through this! I thought I was going to have to call an ambulance! Hot shower…then cold shower…then an antihistamine helped me (I called a family member who is a pharmacist). This was by far the scariest sunburn experience I’ve EVER had.

  11. Dear reader,

    As a person with VERY sensitive skin, I know all too well unfortunately what Hells Itch is. It started in about 7th Grade when I got burnt severely bad one time. Of course I’d been burnt before so I didn’t think anything of it. As I was in class, the most traumatizing itch came over me, and I was immediately sprinting to the bathroom. As I had never experienced this before, I thought I was being very dramatic. What I didn’t realize is that if you itch it, it comes back ferociously and 10x harder and more painful. DONT ITCH IT!!!!! At the time however, I was rubbing my back against the wall in desperation! I was balling my eyes out because the itch and pain was unbearable. I felt completely stupid as I called my mom to come pick me up because of a sunburn.

    Ever since then, whenever I get burnt, I always experience Hells Itch. Sometimes it last for days, while other times of last for a couple of hours.

    Just recently after watching a video about a girl with EPP that allows her to not go into the sun or she experiences a “lava running down her body parts phenomenon” I was curious as to if other people were experiencing the sams TRAUMATIZING ITCH!!!

    Boy, was I relieved to realize I was indeed not crazy! As I have been dealing with this horrible, tear-jerking sunburn side-effect for quite some years, it is a relief to see that I’m not the only one.

    My advice from a Veteran of Hells Itch…
    – let the scalding water do the “itching” so to speak. Take a nice scalding shower to sort of numb the nerves, as I explain to people, THIS IS NOT A SURFACD LEVEL PROBLEM!!! That’s why itching makes it worse!! You’re disrupting the nerves more, causes them to flare up even more!
    – if the itching is driving you crazy, do try and gently/lightly run for about 2 seconds, it will momentarily take if away, without it coming back with force.
    – Benedryl does help with it some, and at least it makes you sleepy so all your really thinking about is how tired you are versus how itchy you are.
    – hugging yourself sometimes helps if it’s on your chest, stomach, or back
    – if at all possible, Sleep the Days away!! Seriously, you aren’t itchy when your sleepy!!
    – try to wear comfort color t-shirts/ or shirts of similar design (if you have to wear a shirt at all, I would recommend not wearing one at all)
    – ladies, if you must go out, WEAR A SPORTS BRA!! Don’t wear a regular bra, I just did today and boy do I regret it, it irritated my skin so bad I had a full blown meltdown at local mall. Don’t do it, please.

    Good luck to all who think they have if, currently are resisting the urge to scratch the hell out of burnt area (as I am right now), or those who have experienced if and know unfortunately what I’m talking about.

  12. I just went through this completely insane ordeal. Yes, the hottest shower you can stand. Then as soon as you get out and dried. Use A&D ointment, for diaper rash believe it or not. If you put it on first it takes about 15 min before your itch calms down. If you put it on after the shower it keeps the itch away. Something in the vitamins A and D being applied directly to the skin calms it and helps heal the skin faster. Oh I took Benadryl also I doubled the dose mostly to help me sleep and not move while I did. Not moving helps too.

  13. My hells itch has lasted on and off for three weeks. It’s the worst at night when I get warm during sleep. Nothing seems to help – I will never sit out in the July Florida sun again.

    • If you are still having the problem after just a few days, you might need to get it checked. That is extremely atypical, which means the problem could be something else. (Although I am not a doctor nor do I play on one TV!)

  14. Morgan Vandewetering

    Hells itch happened to me to except it happened on my thighs, it hurt so bad it felt like knifes stabbing my thighs. No one believed they all said its a normal sunburn itch, until I dropped down and started bawling then they believed me.

  15. This is currently happening to me for the third time in two years it’s not as bad as those first two times I’m not sitting on my bed with towels wrapped around pressing on the burns as hard as I could while rocking back an forth or in the middle of an aisle at publix trying not to scream but coming home in tears from work because it got so intense in those twenty minutes. I just now figured out its Hell’s Itch I read that vitamin a and d ointment is supposed to help and it definitely has its made it to where I can deal with it, it’s like at half mass which I’ll take over full force. I’m praying this never happens again and am going to be a lot more careful with my sunscreen application but if for whatever God given reason it does I will try the peppermint oil in addition to the ointment.

  16. My husband just experienced this on his back, this week. He was outside working for about six hours with no shirt in full sun. Two days later he woke for the day and within minutes was writhing around in pain, crying and moaning, described fire ants, deep itching. Before googling I tried applying aloe vera and Benadryl cream, both made it worse. After looking it up he drank a ton of water, took some Benadryl and Tylenol, while I ran to the store to get A+D ointment. As soon as I got home I rubbed the a+d on his back and that provided instant but mild relief. That combo seemed to work. All in all his symptoms lasted about an hour before everything took full effect. He fell asleep for about four hours and woke up just fine, and three days later has a tan and a better appreciation for sunscreen.

  17. I remember going through this when I was 15 years old. I ran in my yard naked rolling around. DO NOT EVER SHOWER OR BATH DIRECTLY AFTER GETTING TONS OF SUN. It will bring it on

  18. Hey, I know how you feel. Honestly, I’ve had hell’s itch one other time in my life. And that was as a kid. I vaguely remember how it felt too.
    Last Thursday I went swimming. Took my shirt off because I had some sunblock. So I used sunblock once, dried off about an hour later, re applied. I was there for about 5 hours total. So of course, I got carried away, lost track of time, and forgot to keep re applying.
    Came home, noticed my face was burned, no big deal. Started messing around, shirt slipped up a little, and the girlfriend said “uh, babe,lift your shirt again” so I did. My stomach was burned. (First time in my life by the way) She told me to turn around and show her my back. Yep. Burned. ALL over. Man I was regretting life right about then. Because I knew withing 48-72 hours, I’d be in for it.
    48 hours rolled by, and “IT” started. I started counting my blessings and repeatedly yelling at myself for being such an idiot. This time around, I did some research on this damn thing. So I never applied ANYTHING to my back when this itch started. Still haven’t. (I’m peeling now, thank God) When the hell’s itch kicked in at about 2 pm, I was in such discomfort it wasn’t even funny. I couldn’t do ANYTHING. Nothing could begin to keep my mind off the itch. I knew not to scratch it so I was using the sides of my index fingers to rub the spot. If you’ve ever had this shit, it is damn near IMPOSSIBLE to not scratch it. You HAVE to do something to it. People who think it’s just an “itch” need to reconsider. This isn’t just an itch. This will make you cry and honestly make you go completely insane. It is the worst experience I’ve ever had in my life. Luckily for me the intense part of it only lasted about 15-20 hours. Then it started subsiding. Still itched like crazy, but definitely NOT the intense pain/sharp shooting itch type.
    But all in all, I found a solution myself. Showers did not work for me, they just set me on fire (not literally) . Benadryl didnt help me at all either. BUT peppermint oil (NOT diluted) helped. But here’s the best way I was able to cope with this shit. Put a decently loose shirt on. And repeatedly move your shoulders up and down. It will “scratch” your back without pissing off your nerve endings that cause that intense itch. It’s worth a try. And it’s literally the easiest to do. But the hardest to do, is to NOT scratch it. It’s literally impossible.
    My conclusion is simply this. Wear sunblock if you absolutely have to go without a shirt. If you get hell’s itch, it’s probably because you’re burning too easily or not meant to tan that well. Who cares how tan you are. It’s better to be pale as hell, than to ever have hell’s itch. From now on, I’m keeping my shirt on outside. Forget the sunblock. I won’t expose myself anymore. Lesson learned

  19. There is no better term for this phenomenon than “Hell’s Itch.” If you’re experiencing the same thing I did, you have little ability to focus on reading, so here is my advice:

    1. Peppermint oil. This was a lifesaver. It opened my pores and brought soothing relief for long enough that I could get a few hours of sleep.

    2. Warm showers. I did not try the “boiling hot” method, but warm showers held the feeling at bay for as long as they lasted and for about ten minutes afterwards.

    3. Extra strength Tylenol. Hard to isolate how much this helped because I used the peppermoint oil soon immediately afterwards.

    Many thanks to all who have posted their advice. My itch was so bad I could hardly type “severe sunburn from” into Google and was very thankful when Google autocompleted with the word “sunburn.” I had to have my wife read the articles because I could not concentrate enough to do so. Your advice saved me. Thanks!

    • Just got back from puerto rico and a bad sunburn. This thread helped me a lot.

      My back was very itchy anf i found myself constantly scratching it with corners of walls, hands, etc.

      Hot showers and liberal use of peppermint oil helped a lot. My guess is both open your pores.

      Thanks for all the advice

  20. I started getting Hell’s itch 20 years ago after a sunburn and get it everytime I burn now. It took years to get a doctor to understand what I was going through and he prescribed an oral steroid. It’s the only thing that helps me. I’may laying in bed as I type this fidgeting in bed waiting for the Prednisone to start helping. If it doesn’t start working soon I’m gonna get in the shower. I have a t-shirt on because the slight scratching of the movement of the shirt helps without causing a flare-up but when I’m laying still in bed it doesn’t do as much good…

  21. A hairdryer is also a good alternative to the hot shower method and you don’t have to dry off afterwards.

    • I would worry a little about that-doesn’t the air make things worse? Of course, I’m also talented enough to burn myself with a hair dryer during normal times, so I would be leery anyhow. Did you have this and did you use the blow dryer?

  22. I am just getting over my first experience with hell’s itch. I thought it was hives as I am prone to getting them. I found ice cubes and benadryl to be helpful. I was wondering if anyone else had been taking melatonin when you got the itch and also if anyone has issues with their bodies producing too much histamine.

    • That’s interesting. I know my daughter had neither been taking melatonin nor do I think she produces too many histamines. Was the Hell’s Itch you suffered more or less painful than the hives, or about the same?

  23. Pingback: What is Hell's Itch? How You Can Treat It - Metro Parent

  24. My husband recently suffered from this. I also took to Google. As a nurse my mind is always racing to find possible solutions. One idea I tried worked well. I applied a hemorrhoid cream that had lidocaine in it for relief to his affected shoulder area. I looked beyond what it’s marketed for. At the end of the day, it’s an anti-inflammatory with lidocaine for relief and a different suspension from the usual topical hydrocortisone itch relief creams. While it did not take the symptoms away 100%, it made him comfortable enough to sleep all night.Thought I’d share 🙂

    • That’s an idea I haven’t heard before I think.) Do you have any idea what the difference In suspensions is? Also, how large an area were you covering? I’m just curious. Thanks!

      • Travelnurse1

        This is not my area of practice but from what I’ve researched, regular topical creams are not to be used internally because they may have ingredients that are toxic to mucous membranes plus the internal absorption rate is different so the hydrocortisone and lidocaine has to be in a different suspension. I’m sure it’s water based. Not sure it that is the case with other topical creams. When he was suffering, everything we read said the usual anti itch creams didn’t work. Whatever is different, did the trick in providing relief. We applied it across his shoulders down to his shoulder blades.

  25. What an awful experience that is finally ending and relief is here. 4 days of Hells Itch from a not so crazy burn from going in the ocean. Im trying not to relive this horrific experience so I wil just get to what worked.

    Stay hydrated. 80-100 ounces. You’ll most likely be up anyway so being in bathroom to urinate is a nice break from the craziness of wanting to sand paper your back while starring at the ceiling in bed.
    Hot showers followed by…
    A&D ointment (baby aisle cheaper and more ounces then first aid aisle)
    Advil
    Got hydrocortisone and Benadryl meds prescribed by urgent care walk in facility by me to sleep since have newborn at home and had to kick this fast and the doctor said sleep just as important as meds. Still lasted 4 days and on day 5 still itchy at times but manageable. You can also get the shot that doctors use for poison ivy at urgent care that the doctor said works as they had three other patients this week with hells itch. Weird….

  26. I went to the pool with a a friend on Friday, I believe. We both got sunburned. Saturday and Sunday, all I felt was the normal pain that would come when it was touched. Then last night (Sunday night) around 11 I started to get this Ich. I tried many things, then finally decided to take a shower to see if that would help. It did help while I was in the shower, but once I was out, it was back again. At one point, it was only affecting part of one arm, so I fell asleep with my mom holding Ice on that arm. Monday (today) was my first day of sophomore year and when I woke up, I knew I couldn’t go to school. It’s now 2:00 PM on Monday and I am only feeling a small, not NEARLY as painful as last night, itch.

  27. Hello,

    Thank you for sharing your daughters experience with Hell’s itch. I am the father of a 14 year old son. My son, just experienced Hell’s itch for the first time. After the first time it happened, I rushed him to Urgent Care, whereby the doctor assumed it was a normal sunburn, and gave him a prescription for an antibiotic and a steroid. Once home, he had it happen a second then third time. For my son it was 20-30 minutes of pure agony each time, 3 hours apart. Once it happened the third time, and knowing clearly the medicine prescribed by the urgent care doctor wasn’t working, I rushed my son to the ER. By the time he was being seen the symptoms had subsided. The doctor gave him a Xanax, and said he’d be out of it in 30 minutes. They tried to discharge us, but I insisted we stay as I knew it would happen again. They gave him another Xanax, surprised he wasn’t out of it yet. After being there a couple hours Hell’s itch returned again. The doctor observed my son in his constant state of agony and then proceeded to tell my son he can quit faking it to get attention. The doctor pulled me to the side, explained that it was psychological and that I needed to tell my son to be strong, reassure him everything will be ok (which I had been doing), and to tell him to quit faking it. The doctor asked me what I would do if my son had a cold, would I just baby him then? I was very frustrated and knew that we were getting no help. I checked my son out, went home, and by the grace of God my son was finally legally high from the 2 Xanax, fell asleep for 12 hours and has not had an issue since then. This weekend was stressful to say the least. Nothing more frustating than knowing your child may be afflicted by another 30 min of hell. This event has shook me to the core. I only learned of Hell’s itch once googling about it yesterday after my son went through his 4 attacks. I’m determined to become more educated on Hell’s itch. Additionally, I have requested a meeting with leadership at the hospital to discuss the importance of compassion from their doctors, or at least the one my son saw.

  28. Michael Willis

    TENS UNIT!!
    For me it worked. I had an injury to my c4 while serving in the Army and the VA gave me one to ease the pain. I went 17 years between my last hell’s itch, and this time I nearly forgot how intense the pain was.
    Back then I didn’t have the internet to provide assistance, but this time I did the hot shower only to find about 20 minutes of relief. My wife began to heat a towel with scolding water and laying across my back to help when we remember the tens unit I had in the drawer.
    It worked. I really did. I hope this helps someone. Walgreens sells them. It’s sends an electric shock to the area applied to relieve muscle aches but the nerves are usually the main cooperates it reduces the itch significantly.

    Not a doctor so can’t really explain it.

    Unfortunately it doesn’t cure the pain… It only masks it as long as the power button is on, and in my case it was on upwards to twelve hours.

    Mike

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