What is Hell’s Itch? How You Can Treat It

'Hell's itch' happens exactly two days after a sunburn. Find out more about it here.

You can try to avoid sunburn with sunscreen and other products for kids, but sometimes sunburn just happens. And it’s uncomfortable.

But if you or your child develops a really bad itch about 48 hours after the sunburn, you might be suffering from hell’s itch.

What is hell’s itch and how can you treat it?

Hell’s itch defined

If your child’s itch from their sunburn is so intense that even home remedies don’t help, they may be suffering from this rare reaction known as hell’s itch. It is also known as ICI (Insanity Causing Itch).

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This isn’t a well-known condition, and people who haven’t experienced it often think it’s just an over reaction. But this itch can be painful enough to be compared to childbirth, and usually occurs 24-48 hours after the burn is received.

The normal remedies like aloe and a cold towel won’t help this itch.

Parents might be confused when their child is running around like crazy, but there are a few general online consensus ways to combat this.

  1. A hot bath or shower. It may hurt a bit, and sound counter-productive for sunburn, but the slight pain it causes isn’t nearly as bad as the itch, and it relieves it for a little while.
  2. Antihistamine. This is important because the cause is histamines the body uses for anti-inflammatory purposes. An over-the-counter antihistamine, such as Benadryl, will help the itching go away.
  3. Another general consensus treatment is peppermint oil. Peppermint has many uses, and dabbing some on the itchy skin with a cotton ball will provide relief.

It’s never fun watching your child in pain, but fear not, because this condition is not common, and a minor itch can be helped with lotion and antihistamine.

Regular sunburn? Got it covered

If the burn your child is suffering from is just an average burn, here are some remedies from Dr. Wendy Sadoff, the dermatologist at Sadoff Dermatology PC.

  1. Tylenol or Ibuprofen for pain, both will help ease the burning.
  2. “Parents can give a cool bath for about five minutes,” says Sadoff. But be careful because some soaps and bubbles can dry out the skin further.
  3. Apply a moisturizer. “It will replace the moisture the child lost being burned,” says Sadoff.
  4. Finally, keep the child hydrated. They have to replace the fluid in their bodies that they lost when they got burned.

“If they’re throwing up or have a fever, or if they’re under a year old, they should go see a doctor,” says Sadoff.

Aside from the burning, healing sunburn also has some other side effects such as itching, blistering and peeling.

“A moisturizer will help with the itching as well,” says Sadoff. “Something like Aveeno is bland and healthy for the skin.”

Another remedy for the itching is an antihistamine like Benadryl or Zertec, both of which can be bought over the counter.

Sadoff also suggests that if a sunburn is blistering, that the child be taken to a dermatologist.

“It’s really important to keep the blister intact,” says Sadoff. “There’s a greater chance for infection and for discoloration.”

It may not be easy to keep them in tact on a fast-moving busy bee of a child, but it is important because the skin can be damaged to a greater extent.

What not to do

Many parents may have their own home remedies that they remember their own parents using, but some may be causing more harm than good.

“Using Noxzema isn’t actually good because it’s a heavy grease and can dry out the skin more,” says Sadoff.

She also says that a lot of over-the-counter numbing creams are not actually helping the burn, just the pain, and that some people are allergic to them.

Also, she does not recommend that people use a topical antihistamine, because many children can be allergic, and it could cause a rash and more itching.

How to prevent it from happening again

Sunburn may just happen sometimes even though a parent does everything right, and Sadoff has a few suggestions to avoid it after the fact.

“After a sunburn, they should avoid further sun exposure,” says Sadoff. “I recommend a sunscreen with zinc oxide because it will be less irritating to the skin.”

Sadoff also says to look at sunscreen that covers broad spectrum. An SPF of at least 30 is good, but higher is always better.

“Parents should know that SPF does not protect against harmful UVA rays,” says Sadoff. “It’s a measure of the UVB rays it protects against.”

UVA rays are the rays that can come through windows and are the more damaging of the two. But finding a broad-spectrum sunscreen and re-applying when needed will help protect you and your kids from future burns.

Looking for more tips on sun safety? Check out the Metro Parent article on keeping babies safe in the sun

This post was originally published in 2016 and is updated regularly. 

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