How to Survive Post Sunburn Itch

by Howie Decker @HowardTheDeck

Tuesday, 1:15AM. I had gone to bed Monday night around 11:30PM, but shortly after dozing off something woke me up. My back, neck and shoulders were under attack. This was the worst itch I had ever felt.

After 45 minutes of applying aloe & lotion, ice packs, and chugging water, I would have traded my first and last born to be able to rewind the last 60 hours of my life. The previous Saturday afternoon I had committed the sin of skipping the sunscreen before a day at the beach.

There is only one kind of person that can suffer from this severe post-sunburn itch. A person who:

A. has the type of skin that burns instead of tans, and

B. despite this, is dumb enough to think he doesn’t need suncreen, even though this has happened before.

What I’m referring to is a deep-down itch that can’t be relieved. Most people have not and will never experience this, since they don’t fulfill both criteria of the exclusive club outlined above.

By 2:00AM I had Googled ‘intense sunburn itch’ and found that this affliction seems to be globally referred to as “Hell’s Itch”. Typically setting in around 48-72 hours after the sunburn occurs, this is apparently the stage where the skin is trying to heal itself. Sufferers at this point would gladly forego the healing and keep the sunburn. The pain of the burn feels like no more than a firm handshake compared to the curse-inducing-have-to-bite-a-towel-to-keep-from-ripping-your-skin-off itch.

My search results turned up stories of grown men, including U.S. Marines, describing Hell’s Itch as the worst torture they had ever experienced. Tales of crying, running out into front yards naked, and screaming in agony kept me entertained but weren’t offering any solutions. One article advised a 24 hour repeating cycle of 15 minutes in a hot shower followed by 15 minutes out. Sounds unreasonable but I was willing to try anything.

At long last I found a forum from 2004 in which a Hell’s Itch sufferer had asked for advice and some helpful commenter suggested A&D ointment. They explained that the skin itches as it heals and it needs vitamins A & D to heal quickly. The stricken had commented back confirming that this remedy worked and actually provided instant relief. I was in the car before I finished reading that sentence.

It was 2:15AM as I speedwalked into the 24-hour grocery store. They had no A&D ointment, so I stocked up on every anti-itch and sunburn remedy I could find (It wasn’t until today that I realized that diaper cream is A&D ointment). I gave many of them a test run in the store. None seemed to do the job completely, but there was some relief. On the way out I grabbed a bottle of Vitamin D milk, internally rationalizing: “If my skin needs vitamin D, I’m about to chug as much of it as I can keep down.”

I spent $39.70 on an Aveeno oatmeal bath, Sarna itch lotion, Lanacane Spray, Gold Bond Anti-Itch Cream, an herbal sleep aid, and of course the milk.

None of it worked. The spray would stop the itch momentarily, but I’m convinced it was just the act of spraying a mist on my skin that tickled just enough to pull my attention away from the itch for the moment. As far as long term relief, I might as well have been spraying PAM on myself. At least then I might not have stuck to the couch when I finally laid down to attempt going back to sleep.

By 3:30AM I had 3 Advil liqui-gels, an herbal sleep aid, and about a gallon of Vitamin D milk in me as I laid down on the couch. I didn’t dare risk bedroom re-entry as I knew there would be more wiggling and swearing involved. I had at least 4 layers of ointment/aloe/lotion/spray on me, so as you could guess it felt super awesome to lay my sticky skin down on the couch. The cherry on top was the fact that the dog had been sleeping on the couch, and being a Siberian Husky in August, she is in full fur-shedding mode. A nice tar and feathering to end the evening. I looked like a red glowing furry man-bulb.

To my fellow Hell’s Itch sufferer that took the time to post your problem and remedy online 7 years ago, I thank you. I am going to attempt to find A&D ointment again today. If I can’t find it, I’ll be the guy laying in the oatmeal bath crushing a two-gallon of Vitamin D milk.

*UPDATE: A&D ointment was the only thing that worked. It takes a while, no instant itch relief, but it did work. Apply liberally as soon as you get out of the shower and then try your best to be still. Drink a ton of water and if you can, use a shower filter when showering to help lessen the chemicals in your water. Hope this helps!

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