Sunburn Itch (Hell’s Itch): Causes, Symptoms & How to Get Rid of It

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Symptoms of a sunburn itch

The symptoms of a sunburn itch are far more severe than that of a normal sunburn. Typically, hell’s itch appears 24-72 hours after sun exposure.

It commonly occurs on the back and shoulders, conceivably because the shoulders and the back are often exposed to the sun and also maybe do not get adequate sunscreen protection

Itchy or peeling skin after a sunburn is very common. However, the itchiness is far worse than anything you have ever felt before.

Victims of the hell’s itch describe it as an abysmal, pulsating pain that is extremely difficult to treat while others describe the pain claiming that it feels like fire ants crawling and biting the affected area.

Causes of the hell’s itch

Indubitably, the most obvious cause of a sunburn itch is the duration of time an individual is exposed to the sun.

Excessive exposure to ultraviolet rays leads to damaging of the outer layer of the skin, which is made up of countless numbers of nerve fibers that cause itchy skin after a sunburn.

The itchiness continues until the sunburn has completely healed, however, this is not to say that there are no home remedies or over the counter medications for relief.

Risk factors associated with hell’s itch    

Despite the knowledge of the cause that possibly contributes to hell’s itch, researchers are yet to identify the possible risk factors for skin damage related to sun exposure.

However, fairer skin people and those who hardly get exposed to sun, are more susceptible to the side effects of sunburns. Yes, everyone is susceptible to skin damage resulting from too much sun exposure but skin damage is more severe on fair skinned people.

For darker skin-toned people the damages are less severe due to the presence of melanin which blocks out the damaging effects of ultraviolet rays.

 Treatment for the sunburn itch

Treatments can be in the form of natural home remedies, or medical treatments. Here’s what you should try.

Use apple cider vinegar(ACV)

ACV contains weak acid that contains antiseptic properties. The acidity level present in ACV balances out the Ph. level of your skin as well elevates the healing process and alleviates skin itchiness.

Fill a spray can with some ACV, spray on a small area of the affected region in order to determine if you will experience any sort of allergic reaction, if you experience none whatsoever, you can continue spraying and allow it to drip-dry on your skin.

Alternatively, you can use a washcloth or cotton balls sprinkled with ACV and gently dab it on the affected area.

You can repeat this method as often as the itch re-occurs. 

Peppermint oil

Diluted peppermint oil provides a soothing cooling and calming effect. Use 10-12 drops or 5-6 drops per ounce-for children, expectant mothers and people with sensitive skin.

Apply on a small area of the affected region to determine any allergic reactions, if none, apply the oil to the whole affected area.

We highly recommend Peppermint Essential Oil from Pure Body Naturals (Check price on Amazon).

Witch hazelnut

Tannins present in witch hazelnut decrease sunburn itching. This a good alternative to using hydrocortisone cream.

Do a patch test for an allergic reaction before applying witch hazelnut cream to the affected areas or use a cotton ball dabbed in witch hazelnut water on the skin at least 6 times for itchiness relief.

Our favourite is CSM Organic Rose Water Witch Hazel Toner (Check price on Amazon)

Itch medication

  • Applying over the counter steroid creams such as hydrocortisone reduces inflammation and itchiness. Apply the cream at least 4 times a day for better results.
  • Antihistamines can also relieve itchy sensation, more so, because in some cases itchiness is a result of the body’s immune system releasing histamines as a protective mechanism. Antihistamines subdue the reactions and offer temporary relief of the itching sensation.
  • Alternatively, you can use topical anesthetics (creams, gels, ointments or aerosol sprays) to numb the skin, these work by blocking nerve signals in the body thus decreasing itchiness.
  • Hot showers

Very hot showers work perfectly to combat hell’s itch. Just make sure the water is as you can possibly stand and refrain from using soaps and scrubs-since the hot water dries out the skin.

When to see a doctor

If the itching worsens and causes sleep depravity or makes you unable to work you may need to consult your doctor in order to get a more aggressive treatment option.

These involve getting prescription only-available drugs to weaken your immune system. However, these medications can cause other very serious effects and hence should only be used in extremely severe cases only.

Prevention of the skin itch

  • Extreme caution, when exposed to the sun, is the best prevention method, especially for long durations. Always ensure that you wear sunscreen with a broad-spectrum SPF for maximum protection against UVA and UVB rays.
  • Cover up with the right clothing, sit under shades to prevent the direct exposure to sunlight.
  • Consider doing constant skin checks in addition to your health care, especially since continuous sun exposure leads to an increased risk of skin cancer.


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