Sunburn has a way of going from irritating to unbearable, real quick. One day you're spreading aloe on your heat-radiating skin, and the next you're molting like a snake and trying not to itch off every layer of your bubbling skin. Believe it or not there's a name for this brutally itchy and painful type of sunburn, and it's called, "hell's itch."
Although it's not an official clinical diagnosis, "hell's itch," typically occurs in severe sunburns that peel, explains Meghan Feely, MD, FAAD a board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor at Mount Sinai’s Department of Dermatology. Essentially, hell's itch is just colorful name for a bad sunburn that itches and throbs at the same time, and the symptoms can last for days, she says.
The reason why sunburn itches like this isn't entirely known, but Dr. Feely says it's likely a side effect of nerve ending injuries that happen on the skin when you get a bad sunburn. When your sunburn peels, on the other hand, that's a sign that your body is trying to get rid of dead or damaged skin cells. Although it's tempting to peel or scratch at a burn or itchy patch of skin, that can intensify the sensation, delay the healing process, or lead to scarring.
The important thing to keep in mind is that, whenever a bad sunburn leads to extensive blistering that could be classified as "hell's itch" — or comes along with systemic symptoms such as fever, confusion, or chills — it's a good idea to seek medical attention, Dr. Feely says. Even though you might be used to dealing with sunburns of this degree, it can seriously damage your skin long-term or add to your risk of skin cancer. "So, be sure to speak with a board-certified dermatologist to decide what treatment strategy is best for you," she says. Less-severe sunburns can be soothed with home remedies, including aloe vera, cool compresses, colloidal oatmeal baths, topical hydrocortisone cream, and antihistamines, she adds.
Ultimately, while your idea of heaven might be sitting out in the sun, you have to be diligent about preventing sunburn. That means wearing sunscreen, covering your body with protective clothing, and sticking to the shade during peak hours of daylight. Because the alternative is ending up with hell's itch, or spending all summer in a miserable sunburn purgatory.