Being a fairly typical computer nerd who spends his days programming and his evenings talking finance and fintech, it will come as no surprise to hear that I’m not the biggest fan of laying my body out in the sun and waiting for the sky to change me to a pink colour in the hope I might turn brown and gain some kind of bragging rights. That said, my particularly fierce disdain for sunbathing comes as the result of something a little less typical, and something that has a name that’s a little less typical too; hell’s itch.
Fair warning, this is going to be one of those “If you haven’t experienced it, you don’t understand” type things.
See when I was around 10 years old, I spent a little too long in the sunshine on a holiday to Menorca… or Mallorca… I doubt that part matters… and as a result wound up with a fairly burnt back. No big deal my family thought, and went through the usual routine of lathering on some after-sun and hoping it would shift within a few days, all of which were spent with me forced to swim wearing a T-shirt, an image I’m still joyfully reminded of by my siblings a couple of decades later.
But while the bright red tone did indeed fade away into nothingness, the burning sensation itself most definitely did not. In fact, it seemed to get worse. Each day I felt more and more irritated, and each day there was less and less evidence as to why. By the end of the week, my family had – quite reasonably – had enough of me complaining about my phantom pain, and shortly after returning home from the trip, the sensation faded. With that, I consigned the experience to (painful) memory.
Fast forward a number of years to my late teens, when I’m old enough not to make quite as big a deal out of everything, but still young enough to be considered naive, and guess what happens all over again? After another week away in the sun, I come back with a burning sensation on my back that’s so bad I’m barely able to sit down, and a severe lack of empathy from anybody around me. “Just a sunburn” were the words used, and I can’t exactly say I disagreed.
This time though, I had one important difference on my side; Google. A quick search later and my world was filled with stories and tales of fellow sufferers, all manner of people who’d sustained an – often near invisible – minor sunburn, and then spent the days and weeks following it in absolute agony. Better yet, I discovered this phenomenon had a name; “Hell’s itch”.
Now, the irony isn’t lost on me. I’m here, moaning about a problem that everyone thinks is a wild exaggeration, and then I go and refer to it as hell’s itch. I didn’t name it, and I’m sure it has a more medical-sounding name out there somewhere, but as some people call it devil’s itch and the itch of death, hell’s itch actually sounds a little more reserved to me.
Anyway, I’ve no intention of going into the medical background of this strange occurrence, both because I am severely under-qualified to do so, and also because even if I wasn’t, this wouldn’t be the right place to do it. But what I will tell you, is that the common consensus appears to be that it is caused by some kind of an allergic reaction, and that it only affects around 5-10% of people. In short though, the condition can be described as an uncontrollable and relentless itching sensation, usually to the point of feeling painful, that is made worse by seemingly everything you can think of (except for one thing in my case, but I’ll come to that).
My own personal worst case of hell’s itch came when returning from a trip to Australia in 2017. Despite making a point of avoiding the sun as much as possible – I’m super fun at parties, honest – I’d somehow managed to burn that very same section of my back, barely a couple of days before we were due to fly home. Once the standard burn had faded, I felt that familiar itchy feeling, and realised what I had let myself in for. See, I wasn’t just about to go through another bout of the horrific itching, I was about to do it whilst trapped in a tiny economy seat for nearly 30 hours of flying.
For those of you who have been lucky enough to transit through Singapore’s Changi airport, you’ll know first hand what an incredible place it is, and being the aviation geek that I am, I was excited to spend a few hours in the airport on the trip home. But after 8 hours of constant squirming in my chair, there was only one thing I wanted out of that place, and it was the one thing I couldn’t find; peppermint oil.
See, thanks to a surprisingly active Reddit community focused on the condition, there was one thing I found that came up regularly as a suggested treatment, and it was something with a far higher success rate than all other slightly confusing treatments – such as very hot and very cold water, both of which are listed as potential relievers of the pain, and potential causers, confusingly. Peppermint oil, which you can get hold of from high-street herbal stores like Holland & Barrett here in the UK, was thrown out by many a sufferer as a miracle cure, and one of the few things capable of giving “instant” relief.
I’d first encountered it in my late teens, when I’d finished going through a list of 5 or so different cures, including taking a bath in oatmeal – which is where I drew the line – and found that just a few drops, spread over the affected area, took away every ounce of pain in a way that I can’t even begin to describe. It really was the definition of instant relief, and is the one and only thing I’ve found so far that truly treats hell’s itch. It doesn’t fix the problem of course, but it does mask it for a few hours at a time, and has repeatedly kept my mind off the pain just long enough for it to heal up and disappear. Perfect.