I’ve been sunburnt plenty of times before, but there’s one occasion seared deepest into my memory. I was probably 14 or so, and had made a day trip down to the beaches of Connecticut. It was all pretty innocuous; I ended up with a relatively mild burn on my chest and thighs in the evening that followed. About 24 hours later, though, I began to sense an itchiness that seemed to arise from my bones. Aloe vera lotion felt about as effective as spitting on a house fire. We were out of allergy meds. After exhausting essentially every product in the home that even hinted at being “anti-itch” or “soothing,” I settled between soaking in the bathtub with literal oats in it, mummifying myself in my mom’s bed and literally running around the house screaming.
I’d pretty much forgotten about it since that day, only ever bringing it up with my mom to say, “Remember that time I had an allergic reaction to a sunburn? I wonder what that was all about.” Recently, though, I saw a video detailing a similar experience. In the video, they concluded that their boyfriend must have been experiencing something called “Devil’s Itch.” Apparently, some people also call it “Hell’s Itch” or “Suicide Itch.” In other words, I wasn’t just being dramatic.
If I recall, my Devil’s Itch was eventually calmed by a desperate dose of whiskey and a mild sedative, cautiously administered by my mother who was close to bringing me to the hospital. Between that and the oats, the itching eventually subsided. I’ve been sunburnt since then, but the itch hasn’t returned. In the future, though, there are some things I can do to prevent it from happening, or at least treat it if it does.
There’s surprisingly little medical research on the topic, though plenty of people have experienced it. In 2019, a researcher at the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine in Edinburgh, U.K., published a letter to the editor in the Journal of Travel Medicine lamenting the lack of established knowledge on the phenomenon, particularly its prevalence and risk factors. Instead, much of the information on Devil’s Itch has been crowdsourced on platforms like Reddit.
As such, for better or worse, Reddit is indeed one of the most comprehensive sources of information on the evil experience. r/HellsItch has just over 2,000 subscribers, and receives around three posts a day of people saying things like “Literally would rather die” and “Thought about suicide twice in the last five hours.” More than just cries for help, though, the subreddit contains just about everything we know to work against the itch.
On the pinned and regularly updated “Remedies” page, ibuprofen, antihistamines and marijuana are listed as the primary treatments, alongside a list of topical remedies that have had mixed results. Diaper rash cream has had the most reliable effect.
Beyond providing relief, however, the subreddit remains just as mystified as the rest of us. As for when, why and to whom it happens, and why it only happens some of the time… we just don’t know.
The only true way to avoid it is simply to not get a sunburn. Maybe that’s easier said than done, but it’s the best anyone can offer. Wear at least SPF30 and reapply often. Like, more often than the bottle even tells you to. Sunburns are uncomfortable on their own, but trust me — Hell’s Itch is far worse. Those “wishing for death” Reddit posts aren’t joking. It’s better to look like a dweeb with too much sunscreen than it is to experience this, I promise.