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FEELING ITCHY CAN BE MINOR -- OR NOTHING TO LAUGH ABOUT

Most ailments evoke sympathy; not so with itching. Scratching is more apt to prompt titters than tears from friends and even doctors.

"Nobody takes it seriously," says Dr. Andrew Lazar, dermatologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "Even my doctor doesn't take it seriously."

But for those suffering from an itch, their affliction is seldom a laughing matter.

Itching may accompany or herald a serious medical problem. But even when it doesn't, it can be unbearable. Athlete's foot, candidasis and jock itch (which can affect women as well as men) may not be life threatening, but they can be seriously disruptive. Physical and emotional discomfort can make you miserable.

Though doctors can calm itching, they know surprisingly little about its cause. The sensation begins with a stimulus, like an insect bite or sunburn, that tickles nerve endings in the skin called C-fibers. The fibers fire an impulse that travels to the brain, where the signal is translated into an urge to scratch.

Below are a list of possible stimulants, how to avoid them and what to do when the itch hits.

Fungal infections.

Athlete's foot (tinea), ringworm, candida and vaginal yeast are among the fungal infections that cause itching. While doctors can choose from hundreds of antibacterial drugs, "only about 10 antifungal drugs exist," says Errol Reiss, mycologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Feet are a common site for fungal infections. Since fungi thrive in warm, moist environments, let your shoes air out after a workout. Wear sneakers with canvas or leather uppers, which breathe easier than man-made materials. Always wear clean socks and don't scratch -- athlete's foot is not site-specific, so you could wind up with an ugly case of jock itch.

Rubbing an antifungal cream into the affected area often eliminates the most common form of athlete's foot in two or three days.

"Each fungi has its own little shtick," says Reiss. If white lesions are present, bacteria may have taken over from the fungus. You'll need to use an aluminum chloride solution to clear up the problem.

Cellulitis, an infection of the skin cells and tissue, is often seen along with athlete's foot. It can also be treated with antifungal medications.

The feet, scalp and nails can be affected by ringworm. It can usually be treated with good over-the-counter antifungal medications that contain miconazole or tolnaftate. For those more resistant cases, oral and topical drugs are available. Since some forms of eczema or allergic rashes can look like ringworm, your doctor may want to take a scraping before deciding on treatment.

Other common rashes include seborrhea, in which dandruff flakes appear on the scalp, neck and eyebrows. It can be treated with a tar-based shampoo. Some women who work out can develop yeast infections under their breasts. The itch is confined to scaly patches.

Post-workout burn.

Allergies to cosmetics, detergents or the nickel found in zippers and bra clasps can cause a host of rashes. In some individuals, the combination of spicy foods and exercise can provoke a severe reaction.

Others may find the answer in their closet. When spandex was first introduced, it caused numerous cases of dermatitis in cyclists, swimmers and aerobic athletes. New improved rubber formulas have made allergic reactions less common, but people sensitive to rubber, nylon or polyester blends should shop accordingly.

Post-workout itches can also be attributed to latex in leotards. And some people are allergic not to their sportswear, but the detergents they are washed in. Try several brands until you find one that is rash-free.

Eczema and dermatitis refer to the itchiness and localized browning, reddening, thickening and scaling of the skin. Those who suffer from such allergies may find that after prolonged use, antihistamines lose their punch. A doctor will then prescribe eye or nose drops containing cromolyn sodium -- a potent medication that can be used safely for long periods. Relief will come in a few days, without the drowsiness that often accompanies oral histamines. A dermatologist can also test for sensitivity to nickel or other allergens using patch tests.

Urticaria (hives) are an allergic disorder marked by swollen patches of skin, often flaring up after intense running or jogging. Hives brought on by exercise tend to be milder than other allergic reactions. Even severe cases can usually be tamed by a combination of terenadine and ranitidine.

If you get a puzzling rash, eliminate one possible suspect at a time to determine the root of the cause. Although exercise is good for you, it can make an already bad rash worse. Sweating, body heat, sun exposure and rubbing will spread and prolong dermatitis, so take a few days rest and start back with itch-free skin.

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