Hell's Itch. - My Worst Day in Recent Memory.
You won't read much online about it, but hell's itch is no joke. You'll want to rip the skin off your body, just to make it stop. - cover photo by Caleb Shong.
I have a lot of other stuff to do right now: I'm still playing catch up from last month. I shut down submissions for two weeks, and I still have backlog. If you are waiting for your CHILLFILTR coverage, please accept my apologies. It's been rough.
My mother-in-law put us up in an AirBnb in nearby Medford early this week, a cute little house with a pool and a yard and some wild turkeys walking around the premises. Just to get away, really, we've been in serious lockdown since March with the exception of a trip for my daughter's birthday which was in June. Anyway, the pool was nice, the sun was out, and I spent just under 2 hours in the water with my kids floating around on assorted inflatables. I should have known better - I was in the sun for way too long. Mental note: use more sunscreen. From 11am to 1pm is just too much sun. Way too much.
So, my shoulders and chest were an oddly reddish shade of bright pink, I could feel my skin emanating heat, but there was not much in the way of pain. The first day wasn't so bad, and the next day was even better: the color was still psychedelic pink, but pretty much the whole day went by without me noticing much of anything out of the ordinary. At the end of the day, just before bed, I decided to put on some aloe gel - just as a preventative measure, because I've burned in the past and sometimes it take many days before the skin peels, and I wanted to avoid that if possible.
The next morning: the kids are at my mother-in-law's house, my wife is out on a socially-distant friend date with her bestie from San Rafael, and I wake up, make coffee, and start working on my laptop. It's just another day. After 1 cup of the joe - typically there are 3 - I, for some reason, decide to change my shirt. Now, to be fair, there was some itching at that time, which is why I made the decision - but in retrospect, it was a bad move. The thought was "oh, I just slept in this shirt, maybe there is some sleepy sweat-funk on it that is aggravating my burns" - but the truth, I think, was quite the opposite. There must have been some contact-mojo status quo shit going on between the cotton, the aloe from the night previous, and my roasted flesh. I put on a fresh t-shirt, and my life changed forever.
They call it hell's itch for obvious reasons. But you won't read much online about it: one of the only articles I could find about it is here. So maybe you have a case of sunburn, and now the itching feels like a direct attack on your sanity, and you want some answers. Well, here we go. Just know this: you are not crazy. Hell's itch is no joke.
So I've got my new shirt on, and immediately I can tell that something is horribly wrong. A bit like that feeling you have just after you eat too much wasabi, and just before your nose lights on fire. My skin. Ouch. For me there were a few different places that itched, all in perfect symmetry. The tops of my shoulders, the tops of my middle-aged man-boobs, and the stretch of skin from just above my elbow, on the bicep side, to my clavicle. Also, occasionally, it would itch just behind my shoulders. But itch is the wrong word. It feels like simultaneous needle pricks, always in the same place, like an ant with a wide jaw and 3 teeth. And it's the kind of pain that triggers muscle movement - so every time it happens, your arm shakes a bit, or your back straightens up a bit, and you MUST DO SOMETHING. I described it to my wife as a sort of fight-or-flight response - this itch is attacking me, I must defend myself. But, there is nowhere to scratch. The skin is already tender, so scratching hurts, and you end up just rubbing the spot, ever so lightly, with your fingers - just to make the feeling go away. And it does - for maybe 1 or 2 seconds. Maybe.
But what happens even sooner than that, is that the itch just moves somewhere else. And there is a nervous restlessness, like walking briskly is the only way to relieve the stress that is building up because you want to rip the skin off your body, just to make it stop. So within minutes, I am half-sprinting around my house, constantly rubbing my burning, prickly skin through my shirt, touching each of the 4 itchy spots with both of my hands once every 2 seconds. For almost 2 hours. I drink water. I tear my shirt off, put on more aloe, put another shirt back on. Nothing is working. Those were two of the worst hours of my life. Now it's the afternoon, the kids are coming home soon, and thankfully it gets a little bit better. I take a cold shower, I go running, I can almost pretend that nothing is the matter.
But I'm still uncomfortable, that is obvious, and the kids are home. I am in no mood to cook, there are veggies in the fridge, I order a pizza. I'm doing my best to cope. My wife comes home, and tries to help. She googles it, and finds a mention of hell's itch. I feel better, knowing that I am not totally crazy. We read something about how it feels like fire ants biting you - I've never been bitten by fire ants, but that sounds about right. But then - the oatmeal bath.
I love my wife, she's an amazing woman, and I certainly cannot blame her for this one - she offers, I reluctantly agree. The google says this is a good idea. There is an oatmeal bath being poured - I had to do that for Addie last week, so now I know how! - and I am getting into it. I feel like a rose-colored pretzel, lowering myself into a milky broth. Is it too hot? Yes, a little. Here, let me throw some chamomile teabags in there. Just because.
I often wish baths were just bigger - I am more than 6 feet tall, 230 pounds, there is just no room for me in there. I can't really submerge my whole self, but I can put both my arms under, and bless her heart, my wife scoops out oatmeal water to rub on my pink chest. It's a tender moment, of sorts.
Is there chamomile detritus clinging to my thigh?
I spend, I dunno, 20 minutes soaking. Tepid water, plenty of oats, turning myself around in the mixture like a marinating shrimp.
I dry myself as gingerly as possible, put my clothes on, and hope for the best. Within minutes, the shirt is back off, and I am frantically rubbing aloe on my chest again. I was fine in the water, I was fine drying off, but instead of relief, the oatmeal bath seemed to strip away any chemical barriers on my skin that had been inhibiting the itch. It was back, worse than ever, and now it's bedtime. I walk outside, just to get out of the way, but all the doors are locked, and wife and kids are in the bedroom, so to get back in I have to walk past everyone in my scratching-everywhere-at-once mode, which I imagine might look like a heroine addict, pushing away invisible hordes of body lice. I want to scream, I want to run, I feel trapped in my own body, and this is not good. Sure it's painful, yeah it is an itching of sorts, but it goes beyond the simplicity of those words - it feels like a delusion, like a temporary madness, and it also feels like a betrayal - your skin betrays your central nervous system, and your nervous system betrays you. It's not pain, exactly, although it is painful, but it is more like a supersized, alien discomfort - like having to pee, or being forced to listen to someone's bullshit, but utterly intense, with no possibility of escape - because it is emanating from your own body, and all you can do is tap it in one place so it shows up in the next, just this tiny feedback loop of nerve endings, firing away like a stapler to the flesh, for no reason at all. Just PEEL!, you hiss at your own skin, and be done with it, but it is too late for that. Shirt on, shirt off. It doesn't matter.
I finally fall asleep, on my back, contorted with a pillow beneath each arm, and thankfully, today it was a non-issue. My bout with hell's itch lasted just about 12 hours, on the 3rd day after my sunburn. I consider myself lucky. I've been burned many times before - way worse, in some cases - but this was my first experience with hell's itch.
tl;dr: skip the oatmeal bath. Aloe gel is your friend.
cover photo by Caleb Shong.