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If eyes are the windows to the soul, then your nails are the fingerprints of your health.

Model Cheryl Acocella -- pictured with her long, lovely fingernails on the runway in BUFFALO magazine -- first noticed something wrong when her nails started curling like those Wizard of Oz feet, her mom told this reporter. It was the first sign that the model, who cavorted with Calvin Klein, had AIDS, which in the late '80s took her life.

Your fingernails can also provide clues as to whether you have lung problems, heart trouble, carpal tunnel syndrome, anemia, arthritis, liver, kidney and neurological diseases, as well as a handful of other conditions.

For instance, purple nails can be more than the latest vamp polish. It could mean contact with chemicals and drugs.

As part of our skin, nails are more than surfaces to be lacquered.

"If you're not healthy, nails will not be growing normally," notes Dr. Stephanie Pincus, dermatology department chief at Buffalo General Hospital, and chair of the dermatology department at the University at Buffalo.

Sometimes the culprit in deformed nails -- finger and toe -- comes from infection, microorganisms that 10 million Americans women suffer from. And they're nasty. Painful, humiliating -- and contagious. In fact, Americans' "healthy lifestyle" may increase their risk of ugly onychomycosis. Swimming pools, showers, changing rooms and sports shoes are common sources of these fungal organisms, which cause nail splitting. At highest risk for developing nail fungal infections are people who work with their hands, frequently exposed to detergents, perspiration and water, such as outdoor laborers and restaurant workers. Also those who are on their feet, such as soldiers and athletes. Even doctors get it -- such as Dr. Stuart Shanler of Buffalo, who was afflicted with it for eight years.

It has been one of the hardest forms of external infection to treat, but a major medical advance has been one of the closest things to "a magic bullet" we have today, notes Shanler. His toenail fungus "has been completely cured" after a few months of Lamisil tablets, which, studies show, kills those cells "with almost no side effects or interactions with other medications," reports Shanler, whose sandal feet "are no longer an embarrassment."

"It really is a good medication. As people get older, nails grow more slowly, and it's more difficult to get rid of these organisms," says Dr. Pincus.

A "Seinfeld" episode not long ago showed a phobic Jerry dropping a girlfriend after finding anti-fungal cream in her medicine cabinet, while Elaine dates a foot doctor.

The cream was actually for a cat, but if you have an infection around the nail in its folds of skin, and it's "not improving within 24 hours, call your doctor," advises Dr. Michael LaCombe, associate editor of the American Journal of Medicine. For short-term treatment, you can try soaks, notes LaCombe, in his guide "The Pocket Doctor." He suggests soaks in Epsom salts.

Your fingernails grow about one-eighth inch each month -- so don't bite them. If you're right-handed, your right-hand nails grow faster. Nails grow faster in the summer.

For the oncoming Buffalo winter be sure to wear your mittens, suggested Dr. Paul Lazar, who served as president of the Dermatology Foundation. And keep those hands out of the dishwashing liquid -- no matter what Madge says, Dr. Pincus confirms.

Care for your fingers by protecting them from irritants and overdrying, using rubber gloves with cotton liners while doing "wet work," urged dermatologist Lazar. In his handbook "The Look You Like," done with Linda Allen Schoen, he prescribes lubricating your hands, especially the cuticles, "with an emollient cream daily, or several times a day if necessary."

"If you must clip cuticles it's better to clip them often, a little at a time, than to cut too much in one session."

Fingernails have been traditionally assigned magical power, having a folklore and history of use in love charms. Seneca Indians here are said to have at one time tossed them over cliffs for the Little People, the diminutive spirits of the wild.

And if you caught Diahann Carroll's wild performance in Toronto's "Sunset Boulevard," you saw a manicure that put her old "Dynasty" blood-red, I-never-touch-a-dish claws to shame. She credited a balanced diet for her healthy fingernails.

"Working women equate beautiful, healthy nails with good taste, affluence and success," said Carroll, who did consulting work for a nail treatment firm. Nail care has become a fast-growing business, a multimillion-dollar industry.

"Sapphires can't make hands look attractive," Carroll cautioned, "if cuticles are ragged and torn."

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