Got burned by the sun and now you can’t stop itching?
Too much sun exposure can cause bad burns on the skin, resulting in irritating and painful itching. In rare cases, bad burns can lead to an excruciating condition that is referred to as “hell’s itch”.
Typically, sunburn itch will develop after two days have passed and last for two or more days, upon which the itching will slowly subside.
But why exactly do sunburns itch? Let’s talk about it!
Why does a sunburn cause itchiness?
The itch that comes alongside a sunburn occurs due to the burned skin becoming inflamed. Sunburns involve damage to the skin’s top layer, where many nerve fibers are. The damage to this top layer of skin will cause the nerves to activate and generate an extra degree of itchiness.
On top of this, the fluid-filled blisters on your burnt skin can exacerbate the itchy sensation.
What is hell’s itch?
Hell’s itch is an extra-intense itching sensation that usually appears around one to a few days after a sunburn. Researches estimate that 5-10% of people have experienced hell’s itch, although it’s difficult to determine just exactly how common this painful itching is.
While itching and irritation are common aftereffects of any sunburn, hell’s itch is described to be uniquely excruciating. It’s described by some as a deep throbbing itch that feels like it’s below the skin.
Others describe the sensation as akin to fire ants crawling and biting you all over!
No one knows for sure why some folks get hell’s itch and others get by with a normal wave of burning itchiness, but some theorize that certain people might have a genetic predisposition. It does seem to be more common in lighter-skinned individuals, and those who aren’t as commonly exposed to the sun.
The good news is that, while hell’s itch may result in more extreme itching than a traditional burn, there isn’t anything special you need to do. Just work on relieving your itching skin as you would after any sunburned itch (don’t worry, we’ll explain how to do that below).
Can I please scratch it? Just a little?
We know you may feel like scratching your red, fried, blistered skin in order to relieve some of that sunburn itch, but you need to resist that temptation!
Itching burned, fragile skin can worsen your condition because you can break apart the healing your body is trying to do for your skin. By splitting open the burned skin and blisters, you could potentially push bacteria into your skin, further complicating your sunburn and even resulting in more severe itchiness.
If you’ve just been exposed to the sun and now have a bad burn, just stay cool and hydrated (by drinking lots of water) in order to help your body temperature go back to normal.
There are a number of treatments you can use to help heal a sunburn (or, more accurately, support your body as it does the hard work of healing). Apply aloe vera, take an oatmeal bath, get extra sleep, but do NOT itch!
How severe is sunburn itch? When will the itching stop?
Sunburn itching is usually just temporary and that crazy itching sensation should fade away after several days after the burn initially occurred.
However, in some cases, a bad burn can result in an itching sensation that may take a week or longer to fully subside!
How do I treat a sunburn itch?
Unfortunately, there is no perfect cure for a sunburn or its resulting itchiness, but there are some treatments you can try that may relieve some of the painful itchings, or at least help them subside for a bit.
The following treatments can help reduce the discomfort while you wait to heal:
- OTC anti-inflammatory/analgesic medication like aspirin (for adults only) or ibuprofen
- Topical hydrocortisone ointments (good for spot-specific relief – look for 1% hydrocortisone or 10% benzocaine)
- OTC steroid cream (look for 1% cortisone – don’t use for more than a week without consulting with a doctor, and do not use for children)
- Gentle moisturizing lotions
- Avoid: ointments with salicylic acid
If the pain is extremely severe, seek immediate medical attention from a doctor.
When should I see a doctor for sunburn itching?
You’ll want to reach out to your doctor if your extreme itching continues after a week, or if the pain becomes unbearable.
A physician may suggest some prescription-strength anti-itch medication or more advanced steroid creams to ease your discomfort and reduce inflammation.
You’ll also want to reach out to a doctor right away if you notice any changes in your skin, including pigment or texture changes.
In cases where you did give in and scratch your blisters, your skin may be turning odd colors as a sign of infection. Blackish-brown discoloration of the skin could even be a result of solar dermatitis – a very painful and potentially deadly condition if not treated, so reach out to your doctor immediately if you see this kind of skin development!
Bonus: Effective home remedies for sunburn Itch
There are a number of treatments you can use to help heal a sunburn, including:
- Soak a towel in cold water, wring it out, and lay it across the reddened area.
- Drink plenty of water to reduce dry scaly patches that exacerbate itching
- Take oatmeal baths to bring down the inflammation caused by sunburn itch
- Try adding baking soda or apple cider vinegar to make your bath even more effective – these items have soothing properties that can help reduce itching
- Apply aloe vera to soothe aching skin
- Apply brewed tea bag soaked in cold water on sunburned skin
- Coconut oil can be used as a moisturizer for the skin (after the initial heat of the burn has died down)
Hell’s itch and even milder sunburn itches are no fun, but itching and scratching your burn will only make matters worse. Rest up, keep your skin cool, and liberally apply sunscreen or other sun-protective measures to stop a burn from happening again!
Do you have any tips for relieving an itchy sunburn we didn’t detail here? Let us know in the comments!