Hell’s itch may sound like something you get “downstairs” but it’s actually a rare, itchy reaction to the process of sunburn healing. It’s torture for adults but Hell’s itch in children is even worse.
It started with a Sunburn after a Day at the Beach
Last Sunday we spent the day at the beach. It was a hot day we with a cool breeze. We applied sun cream when we arrived and then intermittently because the kids were in and out of the sea all day. Unfortunately, when we got home, we realised that I had somehow managed to miss the bottom two thirds of Boy Child’s back and he was sun burnt. Over the next few days we applied aloe Vera regularly and that seemed to be working, it wasn’t peeling or blistering.
On Tuesday night before bed, he said his sunburn was itchy. I did a quick google and, without actually clicking on a link, found a list of suggestions for itchy sunburn. The suggestions included Piritin (an antihistamine) and cortisone cream. We had both in the house so used them before bed. When I went downstairs, I Idly clicked on the article about itchy sunburn and read for the first time about the phenomenon known as Hell’s itch.
What is Hell’s Itch?
Hell’s itch usually starts around 48 hours after a sunburn has happened although it can occur anywhere between 24 and 72 hours later. The severity of the sunburn doesn’t seem to be a big factor in whether or not it happens. Boy Child’s sunburn was fairly average but my Mum has also had it once after a very severe sunburn where her whole leg blistered.
People describe it as feeling like you are being bitten by fire ants. It’s an intense itching, however scratching the itch results in a stabbing pain rather the relief. It’s fairly rare but seems to be to do with some confusion that happens in the body when the sun damaged nerve endings start to heal. Many people describe it as the worse pain they’ve ever experienced, with some women comparing it to labour. Thankfully, it’s fairly rare which is why you’ve probably never heard of it before.
When Boy Child called for us around midnight, I quickly realised what had happened. My poor child had Hell’s itch. His description matched exactly what I’d read earlier in the evening. He said that he felt like tiny teeth were biting his back. He begged us to scratch it but when we did he cried out with pain. Hell’s itch in children is awful to watch, there is simply no way to comfort them. Boy Child was writing and crying and nothing I did seemed to help.
So much worse than just an Itchy Sunburn
As his last dose of antihistamine had worn off, we gave him more of that and applied my cortisone cream. Getting the cream on was hard because it’s fairly thick and difficult to spread but worth it as it did help a little bit. It was clear that there was no way he could sleep so we went downstairs and put the TV. As the antihistamine started to kick in, the distraction of the TV helped to calm him down.
During the night it never settled down enough for him to sleep. We tried turning the TV off and going to sleep on 3 occasions but as soon as he tried, all he could focus in was the Hell’s itch. The TV remained on all night and between about 4am and 6am he managed to doze although he was never still for more than a few minutes.
The next morning it was clear that the antihistamine had worn off again, we gave him more and tried another suggestion I had read about, a hot bath. It’s counter intuitive to put hot water on sunburn but this really did help. I’d read that you should have it as hot as you can bear. Luckily Boy Child likes his bath quite hot anyway and while he was a bit scared of putting his back in the water, once he did the relief was almost instant.
Recovering from Hell’s itch
I was frantically googling to try and find out how long Hell’s Itch would last. Estimates suggested between a day and two weeks. Luckily for us, it was about a day. He stayed of school that day and I gave him regular antihistamines and basically let him stare at screens all day because he needed the distraction. By dinner time, while he still said it itched a bit, he happily played and helped me with the dinner. We gave antihistamines again before bed and thankfully he slept through night. The next day he was well enough for school.
Top Tips for dealing with Hell’s Itch in Children
Here are the things we found that helped:
- A hot bath or shower – Had we known how quickly this would help it’s the first thing we would have done to get him some instant relief.
- Antihistamines – We used Piritin syrup (Chlorphenamine) in the night because it has a drowsy effect and Cetirizine based allergy relief tablets during the day. These were the most effective at controlling the itching.
- Cortisone Cream – We used a 1% Hydrocortisone cream which is available over the counter.
- Ibuprofen- This can help with the pain aspect but is also an anti inflammatory so can help with the itching too.
- Distraction – Having something else to focus on was key to helping him cope. We just had the TV on in the night and during the day he was allowed as much Play Station and iPad time as he liked.
- Peppermint Oil – We didn’t get any of this until we already had the itching under control so I don’t know how much it would have helped when it was really bad but he did say his sunburn felt less itchy after I applied. Don’t forget to dilute it according to manufacturers instructions, we used sweet almond oil.
- Damp Towel – A lot of websites suggest this, it didn’t work for us, but might be worth a try
What not to do for a child with Hell’s Itch
- Aloe Vera – While it’s great for regular sunburn, it can make Hell’s Itch worse
- Anything with Salicylic acid – this can make it much worse.
- Creams, lotions and potions – Most creams contain some kind of chemical which could make it worse and heavy creams can stop heat escaping.
- Ice – You may feel like you should be trying to cool it down but for Hell’s Itch it’s best to fight fire with fire.
Will he get Hell’s Itch Again?
While very little research exists into Hell’s Itch, anecdotally, it doesn’t seem that people who have had it before are more likely to get it again. My mum is over 70 and has had it just the once. We all have very pale skin in our family so are generally pretty careful about sun exposure but in future my poor kids are going to be getting sun cream out on roughly every five minutes because I don’t ever want to have to deal with Hell’s Itch in Children again (or in adults for that matter!)
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