Does your skin-or your clothing-rub you the wrong way? If so, you’re probably suffering from a condition called chafing. While chafing is rarely a serious problem, nothing can take the spring out of your step like sore, irritated, chafed skin.

Chafing is a condition in which the skin’s normal balancing act is disturbed. Normally, the body constantly sheds skin cells, a few at a time, and replaces them with new skin. “During chafing, persistent friction against the skin rubs off more of the skin’s outer layer than the skin is able to replenish,” says Rodney Basler, M.D., dermatolo¬≠gist and assistant professor of internal medicine at be University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

Redness and irritation are the first telltale signs of chafing. As the problem worsens, so does the pain and aggravation to the skin. “Left untreated, or if the area becomes wet through constant sweat or wetting, the skin may split and ooze or even bleed,” says William Dvorine, M.D., dermatologist and chief of dermatology at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore. Ultimately, infection may set in. Fortunately, chafing rarely gets that bad.

Those most prone to this bothersome condition are overweight people and athletes. Why these two groups? “If there’s greater areas of skin touching skin [as with heavy or very muscular people], then it’s more likely that friction injuries will develop,” says Basler, who is also chairman of the Task Force on Sports Medicine for the American Academy of Dermatology. When athletes are in motion, the movement of skin against skin is increased. What’s more, they may wear rough fabrics that can further irritate the skin.

Target zones for chafing include the upper, inner thighs, under the arms, beneath the breasts in women and, surprisingly, men’s nipples. Joggers often experience chafing between the thighs, but Basler says it’s largely a male problem. He chalks up this difference between the sexes to the angle of the hips.

Whether you’re a man or a woman, chafing doesn’t have to cramp your style. Here are several simple steps you can take to alleviate the problem and prevent it from happening again:

Keep your clothes clean. This is especially important for the outfits you jog or exercise in. “Dirt and sweat can accumulate in fabric and act as an irritant,” says Dvorine. Choose a mild cleanser, and wash clothes frequently.

Go easy on the bleach. Bleach can irritate chafed skin. “I’ve seen this particularly in people who do martial arts,” says Dvorine. “They will often wash their uniforms in bleach and may not wash the bleach out thoroughly enough.” Avoid bleaching your clothes, or at least make sure the bleach is thoroughly rinsed out.

Rinse your suit. The chlorine used in swimming pools can also irritate chafed skin, so after a swim in a chlorinated pool, be sure to rinse off your suit and your skin.

Sprinkle with powder. Powder, applied to chafed areas during the day or before a workout, can act as a buffer and cut down on friction. “Using powder may prevent a mild case of chafing from progressing into a more serious one,” says Dvorine.

Most any powder will do, but you may be wise to look for one with talc or cornstarch, suggests Hillard H. Pearlstein, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. “They are excellent drying agents that absorb water and moisture,” says Pearlstein.

If you’re chafed in the groin area and you’ve b a fungal infection such as jock itch in the past, an over-the-counter anti-fungal powder may be in order. “That gives you the added benefit of not only cutting down on the friction but killing any fungus that might be present,” says Dvorine.

Dab on some cream. Applying 0.5 percent or I percent hydrocortisone cream (available without a prescription) to the chafed area can provide soothing relief. “Cortisone quiets down the inflammatory response in the skin and allows the, skin to heal itself, which it will do if just given half a chance,” says Dvorine. You can apply the cream I during the day or, if you find that too messy, you i can put it on only at night. If you apply it in the evening, Dvorine suggests removing the cream with mineral or baby oil in the morning and using i the powder by day. He advises against using soap’ and water to wash off the cream, as that can further irritate chafed skin.

Give your underarms a break. Hold off on deodorants or antiperspirants-or at least use them sparingly-if your underarms are chafed. Until the condition clears, don’t shave or trim the hair in your armpits, either, says Dvorine. These practices will only further aggravate the skin.

Wear “bun huggers.” “The advent of the bun huggers in the last five years has been wonderful for eliminating chafing,” says Basler. These sports briefs with tight-fitting legs that end about mid thigh are great for runners.

Cut back. While most cases of chafing don’t get this bad, you may find it is simply too painful to do whatever activity caused the chafing. In that case, Basler suggests you take a few days off from the activity and let the skin heal. Then, when you’re ready to begin again, protect your skin. Before each workout, smooth thick cream on areas where you usually get chafed.

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