Mysterious ‘Hell’s Itch’ Syndrome Afflicting Thousands In America

So many headlines over the past many months have been about COVID, but there are other health concerns out there affecting Americans, and one of them that seems to be afflicting many people this summer has a very disturbing name. It’s called “Hell’s Itch” and as if the name weren’t bad enough – doctors aren’t really sure what causes the painful condition.

What is known is that it comes from sunburn. For some people, sunburn clears up after a few uncomfortable days, but for those who wind up with “Hell’s Itch,” after 48 hours or so, the burn explodes into an incredibly intense itch that, when scratched, is remarkably painful.

One sufferer described it as “being stabbed by the sharp point of a thousand compasses, while lemon juice and itching powder was rubbed into the wounds,” while another, on the subReddit dedicated to the condition, stated, “I feel as if there are fire ants crawling underneath my skin and they are pissed off… this is the worst pain I’ve ever had, and that includes breaking my collarbone.” One went so far as to say, “I want the sweet relief of death. Please make this s**t stop. I hate everything and everyone.”

Unfortunately for those with it, there hasn’t been too much research into the phenomenon. The Cleveland Clinic wrote about it though, quoting Dr. Melissa Piliang, who explained, “Anyone who has a sunburn could get it, but it seems to be more common in fair-skinned people and people who have been at higher altitudes where the sun is more intense, like in the mountains.” As for what in the body causes it, doctors don’t know but think it “may be due to damage in the nerve endings” at the site of the burn, “triggering an overreaction.” However, as one doctor wrote in the Journal of Travel Medicine, “The true nature of Hell’s Itch is still a conundrum, though it appears to be a brief self-limited epiphenomenon producing considerable discomfort.”

The good news is it only appears to affect a small percentage of people, and mostly on their shoulders and upper back. As for what to do if you get it, most people suggest not putting aloe or anything topical on it, as it tends to make it worse. Instead, antihistamines like Benadryl help, as does ibuprofen, as well as a soothing oatmeal bath. Dr. Piliang noted, “Be really careful not to scratch the itch because it doesn’t relieve it at all and often makes it worse. You can also create tears in your skin that can be a portal of entry for bacteria and could lead to infection.”

Of course, the best thing to do is always put on plenty of broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 when you are outside, and perhaps even wear sun-protective clothing.

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