Hell’s Itch: Treating a Sunburn + Prevention

When a person heals from sunburn, he or she may experience hell’s itch. What exactly is it?

Treating Hell's Itch

A sunburn itch can turn into hell’s itch, which, as the name suggests, is an agonizing experience. Anyone who has a sunburn is susceptible, but only a few are unlucky enough to get it.

‘Hell’s itch’ describes the pain and itch that anyone may feel due when healing from sunburn. It is also called “devils itch”, “fire ant itch”, and “suicide itch”. This sunburn itch from hell reaction develops within 24 to 72 hours after a sunburn, just around the time when it starts to heal. It usually develops at the back and on the shoulders. 


What Causes This Itch?

This affects 5 to 10% of people who have a sunburn. There no further studies to back up why this happens or who may be susceptible to this condition. In addition, it is not known whether people exposed to this condition will continue to get it or not.

One thing remains consistent, however. Hell’s itch is a reaction from a sunburn, which happens due to prolonged exposure to the sun without enough protection. In hell’s itch, the nerve endings of the sunburnt skin are irritated, sending “itching” signals to the central nervous system while on the process of healing.   


Risk Factors for Sunburn

  • People with fair skin, blue eyes, and light hair
  • Expose to a sunny, warm, or high altitude environment
  • Work involves being outdoors
  • Unprotected exposure to UV rays from the sun or artificial sources
  • On certain medications, such as photosensitizing drugs
  • Sun exposure and using alcohol
  • People who have sunburn history


Treatment for Sunburn and Hell’s Itch

Nobody wants to get sunburned, so at its onset, you need to get out of the sun.

Cool it down

If near water you can dip fast then stay away from the sun and cover. A cool compress is another way to cool or a fast-cool shower avoiding harsh soap. You need to ensure that your sunburned skin will not further be irritated. In addition, the use of ice has a numbing effect and it will not only reduce the swelling but the itchiness as well.  


The best time to apply a gentle lotion is when the skin is still damp. You need to keep your burned skin moist while it is healing.

Reduce inflammation

To reduce inflammation and discomfort, take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) like naproxen, ibuprofen, and aspirin. You may also apply 1% over-the-counter cortisone cream. This cream applied lightly will address the redness and the swelling.  An aloe vera is also safe in soothing a mild burn. A traditional home remedy not only for sunburned skin but also heal the wounds. Just ensure you use the pure aloe vera gel extracts.

Take a lukewarm bath

A lukewarm bath with colloidal oatmeal will soothe the itch. Colloidal oatmeal contains avenacin, a compound that has antifungal properties.

Reduce itchiness

Oral antihistamines like Benadryl is commonly used for allergy symptoms. They can help relieve the itch, moreover, make you sleepy or drowsy. This effect might be helpful since the itchiness sometimes deprive you of sleep. 


Replenish by drinking extra water and a sports drink with electrolytes immediately. Prolonged exposure to the sun depletes the burned skin surface with fluid which can dehydrate you.      

It is important to consult a doctor when you have severe blisters, have fever or chills as these are signs of infection.


What Not To Do

There are things that can make hell’s itch worse. You should avoid:

  • Scratching. It will not relieve the itch and just increase your pain.
  • Popping blisters. A wound is a possible entry of infection.
  • Putting ice directly on the skin. Directly applied ice will prolong the healing process.
  • Topical pain reliever (benzocaine) or numbing creams
  • Greasy lotions. Mineral oil, plant oils, petroleum jelly
  • Long baths. It will take skin moisture and worsen itching



Hell’s itch is uncommon until one encounter it. No one knows that a common sunburn can lead to hell’s itch. To avoid sunburn, two preventive methods such as proper use of sunscreen and avoiding sun exposure,

1. Use Sunscreen

  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen. The best sunscreen is one that protects both ultraviolet A (UVA), age the skin and ultraviolet B(UVB) rays will burn the skin. Do mind the labels when you get a sunscreen.   
  • Choose appropriate SPF. An SPF measures sunscreen protection from UVB rays and not UVA rays. work   Dermatologist usually recommends at least SPF 15 for daily protection and higher SPF for longer sun exposure.
  • Check the expiration date. A sunscreen or any other items with an expiry will not be effective if already past its usable date.
  • Apply generously. To get its benefit, you need to apply enough to avoid sunburn. Follow the application instructions to get its benefit.
  • Regularly reapply. If under the sun, sunscreen wears off so you need to reapply every two hours. And if you are in the water, reapplication can be often as you get out of the water.

2. Limit Sun Exposure

  • Avoid the sun at its peak. The sun’s peak is between 10 am to 2 pm, where the UV rays are strongest.
  • Wear the right clothes.  At times, you cannot avoid going out at the sun’s peak that you simply must wear cover with protective clothing to avoid sunburn. Dark clothing blocks more sunlight than light colored clothes. Also, available clothing with UV protection as an alternative.
  • Accessories for eyes and head protection. The appropriate hat can cover your scalp from sunburn and sunglasses that provide 100% UV protection.

The only way to prevent a hell’s itch is simple, avoid sunburn. Of course, there is no way to avoid the sun but you need to take protection. Use sunscreen and cover up, and you will be a step ahead of this agonizing hell’s itch.       

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