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Minor Athlete Infections and Other Annoyances: How to Prevent and Treat Them

From herpes to jock itch to jogger’s nipples, a tour of an athlete’s chamber of little horrors

Folliculitis, friction blisters, and jogger’s nipples

Watch what you wear, Badger says. For starters, folliculitis, an inflammation around the hair follicle, can "come from the continued wearing of wet clothing after exercise. The follicle provides an entry route for bacteria into the skin." Workout garb can also contribute to friction blisters, Badger says, another typical complaint. The feet get it worst, and a properly fitted, activity-appropriate shoe will minimize the irritation. Taking the prize for most memorably named, "jogger's nipples" is a common reaction to chafing — putting on an adhesive bandage will often help.

Onychodystrophy, or toenail abnormality

When they're not worrying about their nipples, runners have their toes to guard.

"Toenail abnormality, or onychodystrophy, can be brought on by the trauma of running," Badger says. "The toe is forced into the toe of the shoe, separating the nail plate from the nail bed. It's often confused with toe fungus."

Because onychodystrophy is the result of repeated minor trauma to the nail, sports doctors recommend trimming toenails regularly and not lacing shoes too tight. In extreme cases, surgery is the only treatment.

Swimmer’s hair and sunburn

Even your hair isn't safe in the sporting life. "Swimmer’s hair," that Kermit-esque tint often seen in blond swimmers, is generally attributed to chlorine. In fact, look no further than the Statue of Liberty to get a sense of what's happening to their locks — the small amount of copper in the pool causes the green. Wetting one's hair before diving in can minimize the amount of pool water that gets absorbed. If the greenery is already in place, however, a hydrogen peroxide rinse is the easiest way to get it out.

Of course, that other hue frequently found on athletes — bronze — is far less trivial. Regular exposure to the sun is perhaps the least addressed and most serious of these sports-related health issues. Even on cloudy days — and this, like airplane seatbelt instructions, must be repeated long after we know it by heart — sun block is essential to prevent sunburn and sun damage to the skin.

"I guess frostbite is another exposure risk for athletes, but I don't think all that many are out practicing in the freezing cold," Badger says.

Lest the world of sports start to sound positively terrifying, a little practical advice is in order. "Sports injuries are underneath the radar screen of 99.9% of the general public," says David H. Janda, MD, director of the Institute for Preventive Sports Medicine. Janda can rattle off a frightening list of possible sports related traumas, but his most important take-home message is a simple one: Stay alert, because even minor afflictions like the ones described here deserve attention.

Reviewed on June 01, 2007

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