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Itching, scratching and answering questions

 Itching, scratching and answering questions

In spite of all sorts of factors pushing in the wrong direction,things have gone remarkably well this week. In spite of anunfortunate episode

on opening day when my young setter actually caught one of thebirds she had been pointing, she did not change her demeanor andmade several successful points after that.

The two girls in my group for the youth hunt, Lauren and Becca (akaGranddaughter One) out-shot the boys pretty convincingly. At theannual qualification required for retired police officers, I woundup in a disappointing second place with the first type of handgunbut rallied in the next round.

I am even on a run with the Sightings. After some debate, everyoneagreed that what were identified in the column as Jack O’Lanternmushrooms, were exactly that. Even more surprising, the bug guysagreed with my identification of the giant swallowtail butterfly.In fact, the renowned Dr. Frankus not only verified myidentification but reported he had seen another in the King’sGarden at Fort Ticonderoga.

In the wake of all that, it is without trepidation I turn myattention to this month’s questions.

Nice story about horseflies. The lady in the cast is forsure going to kill you but in the meantime, what causes things toitch? It seems like a counterproductive thing for the body todo.

Do not worry about my safety. It has been my experience thatwhile many women have short tempers, they also have short memories.I have not actually seen her yet, but she left a phone messageearlier this week without mentioning strangulation, mutilation or,in fact, anything that would leave a mark. I think the coast isclear.

As far as itching goes, it certainly does seem counterproductiveand at least fraught with unintended consequences. In manyinstances, the itch is so pervasive that the organism does otherdamage trying to scratch the itch and finds itself with bleeding,abrasion and secondary infections.

So why make it itch in the first place? Turns out the answer isinteresting because there are two reasons for itching.

The first is biochemical. When some sort of foreign substanceintrudes into the body, one of the responses is the production of asubstance called histamine.

Too many of these generates the classic reaction to something youare allergic to, i.e. extreme swelling, discoloration, hives – thesort of things that send you running for an EpiPen. In a normalreaction, the small itch generated by a sliver, insect bite ornearly healed scab, the small amount of histamine stimulateshistamine-sensitive nerves causing pruritus, the medical term foritching. With a normal histamine pruritus, the spot itches, youscratch it and the stimulation brings a flood of blood and lymphfluids to the site to speed healing.

Also, throughout your skin, there are specialized nerves that onlystimulate an itch, no other sensations. These are set up close tothe skin and made to react at the slightest stimulation. Thisappears to be a natural defense against the threat that kills morehumans than anything else in the natural world – insects. you mightshake off heat, cold, or hearty blows but let a single louse walkacross your arm and the itch nerves make you scratch and theinterloper is dislodged.

My dogs wrestle, paw and bite each other quite energeticallywithout any particular discomfort but let a single flea strollthrough their hair and they erupt in paroxysms of scratching androlling. The explanation is that the itch nerves are more directlywired to the spinal cord and thence to the brain. this allows thebrain more direct access and can cause problems.

Many people (and pets) experience idiopathic pruritus, which isitching for no apparent reason.

The brain, sometimes apparently in a response to nothing else muchgoing on in the area, just sends out the signal for an itch. Thisis why it often does not take direct stimuli to cause an itch. Justreading this has been enough to make many of you rub your face orscratch your head or arms.

The act of scratching causes the production of endorphins whichcause feelings of relief and happiness, making the brain turn offthe stimuli. Unfortunately, in a case such as the lady in the cast,if you cannot scratch it, the brain becomes even more persistentincreasing the itch sensation until it makes you crazy.

I liked your pictures of swallowtails but I saw a strangeone at my mother-in-law’s house. It was the normal color on theleft side and all black on the other. am I crazy?

It is entirely possible you are crazy and many people seestrange things at their mother-in-law’s house, but you are probablyaccurate in your sighting. Female swallowtail butterflies aredimorphic, that means they come in two colors. one is yellow andblack like the males, but with a lot more blue on the base of thetail. The other phase is almost black with only a shade of stripesshowing through. Every now and then, a butterfly will emerge as agynadromorph, that is as you describe, yellow on one side and blackon the other. Typically the yellow side is the male pattern. we donot usually see them this far south as they more often occur whenthe tiger swallowtail and the Canadian swallow hybridize. Too badyou did not get a picture.

I do not think your brain is too old to learn. I think youhave simply filled it with ridiculous things until there is no moreroom.

Bob Henke may be contacted by mail c/o The Post-Star, email atbobhenke@capital.net, on Twitter at @BobHenke, or on Facebook.

Itching, scratching and answering questions

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