Sunburn “Fire Itch” From Hell


Living in Arizona, you know that a sunburn is going to happen to you at least once. At least. You do not want to think you are dumb enough to get burned a second or third time, but it happens. Even great parents have felt the pang of guilt when they see the red faces of their sunburnt children. Sometimes it does not matter how much or how often you apply sunscreen to the pale white Irish skin of your spouse and children, a burn is just going to happen. I know, because dammit, we experience this scenario every summer! Even worse, trying to protect that skin in different sun zones, like in California or Mexico or up north on the ski slopes.

On a recent October trip to Ventura, California, we experienced a new kind of sunburn. All three of my boys, one of them my husband, spent the day frolicking in the gorgeous surf. Yes, sunscreen was applied. Yes, at the end of the day you could see areas that got missed. Yes, we knew there would be misery!

At the end of the day, we all trekked back to our hotel to clean up so we could go to happy hour to start the happy bantering of my brother turning 60! Lining up my three guys, they looked like sunburned clones of each other (guess none of them got my tanning abilities!). After showers, I carefully applied the Aloe Afterburn that we should own stock in. Two of the three guys were feeling the normal pain of a sunburn, the other one, not so much.

Our oldest boy (18), was practically reduced to tears. Now, taking time away from his college studies to enjoy a weekend with the family was a big deal. He already feels like he cannot catch up with his homework, and it went from bad to worse. He decided to stay instead of going to happy hour, hoping the Afterburn would start to work and use that time to catch up on homework. Instead, when we got back to the hotel, the kid had the chills, was in tears, and could find no relief for the pain.

He suffered through night, the morning brunch and the five-hour ride back to Phoenix, and we dropped him at his dorm mid evening. The next night, I got a call at 10:30 pm. He was hysterical and I could barely understand what he was saying. If my Caller ID had not identified who it was , I would not have known. Rolling my eyes to my husband, I proceeded to drive all the way to campus, with vinegar and Ibuprofen in hand.

His girlfriend met me at the front gates and took me to his room. Along the way, I asked her if it was really "that" bad or if he was just being a baby? With a non-committal shrug of the shoulders she said he seemed pretty bad and she had already given him the maximum dose of Ibuprofen he could take.

I was not prepared for what I saw when he opened his dorm room door. He was in his boxers with a cold wet towel draped over his shoulders, he was speaking gibberish in between sobs. Actual sobs. And he was hysterical. (Sorry to tell our secret, honey.)

So I jumped into mom mode and took a look. The sunburn looked like any other, but he said he felt like he had ants crawling over and under his skin and biting him randomly all over. He said he wanted to rip his skin off. So naturally, I thought the vinegar would take the sting out of it and things would get better. But they did not. They actually got worse. The Afterburn had made it worse. The ointment his girlfriend had applied earlier had also made it worse. Nothing seemed to be working! I gave him some Benadryl, thinking that would surely help - eventually, while silmultaneously thinking to myself, "if not soon, I would need to take him to Urgent Care to get him sedated." I mean, I had never seen him like this! While trying to calm him down I started researching it and low and behold, I was stunned with what I came across!

His fire-ant biting him description provided me with a plethora of information. Apparently, this "sunburn" is different from the average sunburn, although to look at it, one cannot tell the difference. However, the sufferer can! Article after article, I found "Sunburn Itch From Hell", "Fire Ant Hell's Itch", and many variations thereof. For some reason, it happens with some sunburns, but not all. Everyone who had experienced it stated that they had had normal sunburns before and after this event. Although sometimes it did occur with subsequent sunburns - but not all! And it affected people from all walks of life, from secretaries to military persons, men and women, and of all ages, and their descriptions were all the same and spot on with what our son described! Treatment: the hottest showers you can take for as long as you can stand it - which is entirely contrary to treating a sunburn! - Ibuprofen and sometimes Benadryl was known to help. And ultimately I found a description of a prescribed medicine named Atarax.

There was some indication that many people may be predisposed genetically to it, though that reference was made to acknowledging family members suffering from it, not medically studied or proven. Some people weighed in saying that it was likely an allergic reaction, but the one thing that made sense to me was that something terrifically different with this burn caused an unusually high drop of internal histamine (allergy perhaps) that activated the nerve endings of the skin, causing superficial nerve damage and thus the "ants biting" analogy.

Three things I know from this adventure: people who do not suffer with this kind of sunburn cannot understand the amount of pain associated with it. Doctors will look at it and tell you to suck it up and forum after forum, people indicated that this is something you just cannot suck up. Every single one of them mentioned killing themselves! The other thing was, with a prescription of Atarax (which is hydrocortisone) or hydroxyzine the person feels utter and complete relief in just about 30 minutes!

As for my son, he missed the full day of classes for which he was not excused and ended up visiting Health Services on campus the next day because he could not stand it any longer. He called me and said he thought I would have to pick him up and take him to Urgent Care because to them it looked like a regular sunburn and he needed to suck it up. Fortunately for him, the doctor saw him. She, too, was about to dismiss him when he showed her my text with information listed above. She said she did not quite understand it and never had heard of a sunburn causing these symptoms but prescribed the Atarax for him.

An hour after he took the Atarax, he called me and said it was like a miracle! He was his old self once again, and very apologetic for causing me all this grief and all the hysterics.

It was I who owed apologies. When I spoke to him initially on the phone, I said, "it's a sunburn, you need to suck it up" and when walking with his girlfriend to his dorm, I made light of the situation and the need to have me there.

So sorry, kids!

Ursula Neal

Ursula is a grief coach for mothers who have lost children helping them to move from crappy to happy again. She is also a personal growth strategist helping individuals reach their goals. She may be reached at 602-400-4423 or Facebook Google+

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