Multiple sclerosis (MS) itself doesn’t raise your chances of getting COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by a new kind of coronavirus. But if you have MS, certain things affect how you’ll respond to the virus. They include:
- Your age
- Other health conditions
- The kind of MS medicine you take
Experts don’t know for sure how COVID-19 or its vaccine will affect people with MS. But national and international health organizations are following developments about the virus and working to make the best recommendations for your care. And there are things you can do to protect yourself now.
What Does 'Higher-Risk' Mean?
That’s anyone who is more likely to get COVID-19 or to get really sick from it. This includes people with MS who:
COVID-19 and Disease-Modifying Therapies (DMT)
These drugs change how your immune system works. That's how they control your MS. But some DMTs can make it harder for your body to clear up infections. This type is called immunosuppressants because they lower levels of certain immune cells called lymphocytes.
Don’t stop taking your medicine, no matter what kind you’re on. Instead, talk to your doctor about your treatment. They’ll work with you to find the best choice. They can discuss the good and bad of taking DMTs or other drugs. It may be more important to slow down your MS than to lower your chances of getting an infection.
Your treatment -- and whether you need to change it -- depends on a number of things. Those vary from person to person. But your doctor will think about:
- How serious your MS is
- Whether you have other health problems
- Your recent blood tests, including immune system markers
- Your lifestyle
- Other medicines you take
If you’re about to start a new medicine, talk to your doctor about the pros and cons of:
- Cell-depleting DMTs. These include alemtuzumab, cladribine, mitoxantrone, ocrelizumab, and rituximab.
- Immunomodulators. Most of these don’t suppress your immune system. That means they don’t raise your chances of infection. These are drugs like glatiramer acetate, interferons, and natalizumab. Your doctor will decide if these are right for you.
- A DMT with a strong warning. Some medicines can cause serious symptoms when you stop using them. That includes fingolimod and natalizumab.
How to Stay Safe
Your doctor may want you to be more careful than most people. Some guidelines you can follow include:
Wash your hands often. Scrub everything, including your fingers and wrists. Do this for at least 20 seconds. Use regular soap and water. If that’s not around, alcohol-based hand sanitizer works, too. But it has to have at least 60% alcohol.
Lather up when you:
- Touch something in public
- Blow your nose
- Cough or sneeze
- Are about to eat or make food
Don’t touch your face. This one is hard. But try to keep from rubbing your eyes, nose, and mouth.
Keep away from crowds. You may hear this called social distancing. Some guidelines say to avoid meet-ups of more than 10 people. This number may go up or down in the future.
Avoid close contact. When you can, stay 6 feet away from others. That's really important if someone is coughing or sneezing.
Stay home as much as possible. If you don’t go out, you’re less likely to come into contact with the virus. Work from home, if possible. You may want to ask a friend or caregiver to pick up your groceries and supplies for you.
Wear a face mask. To limit the spread of the virus, the CDC recommends that everyone wear a face covering when they have to go out around other people.
What Happens If You Get Sick?
COVID-19 tends to cause certain symptoms. If you get them, it doesn’t mean you need to go to the hospital. Stay home and call your doctor's office. Tell them if you have:
- A dry cough
- Shortness of breath
Call your doctor or 911 right away if you or a loved one has:
- A really hard time breathing
- Constant pain or pressure in your chest
- Trouble thinking clearly
- A blue tint to your lips or face
Like any other infection, COVID-19 can cause some MS symptoms to come back. But those should lessen or go away once you fight off the virus.
You may notice more:
Check in with your doctor if you’re worried. Always tell them about any new symptoms. But most cases of COVID-19 are mild. That means you should be able to get better at home.
Free COVID testing is available in most communities. Some locations require an appointment while others are drive-up. Check with your local health department about testing availability.
Advice for Family Members and Caregivers
Caregivers and family members of people with MS should also take steps to lower the chances they'll get and pass on COVID-19. That includes taking the vaccine if possible, washing your hands often, wearing cloth face masks, and staying away from crowds. You should also make sure your loved one has enough food, medicine, and other supplies so they don't have to leave the house too often.