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How to Manage Heat Sensitivity With Multiple Sclerosis

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on December 12, 2019

When you have MS, even a small rise in body temperature -- about 0.5 degrees F -- can make your symptoms worse. Lots of things can cause this, including warm weather, hot showers, a heavy meal, and exercise.

Heat-related symptoms aren’t harmful and go away as soon as you cool down. There are also many ways to chill out so heat is less likely to bother you.

Why You’re Sensitive to Heat

MS damages the protective sheath around nerve cells in your brain and spinal cord. This slows down nerve signals, so your body doesn’t always respond the way it should. Heat can slow these signals even more. MS can also affect the part of your brain that controls your body’s temperature. Symptoms like fatigue, pain, and trouble thinking can flare up, making it hard to get things done. Other symptoms can worsen too, such as:

  • Blurred vision
  • Muscle weakness
  • Problems with walking or balance, sometimes leading to falls
  • Trouble with your bowels or bladder
  • Trouble with focus and memory

 

What You Can Do

You could run the AC all summer (not a budget- or earth-friendly option) and avoid the gym. But there are some much better solutions. Try these tips:

  • Exercise safely. Exercise helps your balance, strength, mood, and overall health. But it can also raise your core temperature and briefly worsen symptoms. Here are some things to try:
    • If you exercise outdoors, go early in the morning or at night.
    • Don’t wear too many layers, even if it’s cold.
    • Swim in an unheated pool. (Swimming is great for many reasons.)
    • Wear a cooling collar. You wrap this lightweight device around your neck like a scarf. It cools you as the ice inside melts.
  • Beware of your activewear. It’s hard to keep track of all the high-tech fabrics used in gym clothes these days. Do your homework before you buy. For example, moisture-wicking gear may keep you dry but also trap heat. Look for clothes and shoes with mesh panels.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothes that breathe. Cotton, linen, and rayon allow air to move freely through the fabric so you stay cooler. They’re the closest thing to AC for your skin.
  • Light with LEDs. Light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs put out a fraction of the heat of incandescent and compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). They also last longer and use less energy.
  • Pull the plug. Gadgets and devices create heat, even when you’re not using them. Unplug before you go to bed.
  • Eat light. Instead of cooking heavy meals that heat up the house -- and your body -- opt for more salads and fresh fruit.
  • Hydrate. Drink plenty of water. It helps prevent brain fog and fatigue, two common heat-related symptoms. Don’t worry about getting eight glasses a day. Use the pee test instead. If your urine’s clear or pale yellow, you’re drinking enough. If it’s darker in color, you need more H2O.
  • Try ice and spice. Ice-cold nonalcoholic drinks (alcohol makes things worse), ice chips, and ice pops help you stay cool. Surprisingly, extra spicy food does, too.
  • Find a fan. Fans help you feel cooler because they evaporate sweat. Be sure to place the fan so you catch the breeze; it’s only able to cool you, not the whole room.
  • Check tech. You can buy all kinds of high-tech cooling gadgets -- for a price. Look for cooling sheets, towels, and pillowcases that wick away sweat. A cooling vest can help you safely enjoy outdoor activities:
    • They cool your core with frozen packs or gels.
    • Some you pop in the freezer or refrigerator; others have batteries.
    • Many are thin enough to wear discreetly under clothing.
    • You can stay refreshed for up to 3 hours.

These gadgets can cost hundreds of dollars, so do your homework first. A few programs provide cooling vests for people with MS, including the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America's Cooling Distribution Program and the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation's Cooling Program.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

National Multiple Sclerosis Society: “Heat & Temperature Sensitivity,” "Cool It! Beat the Heat."

UpToDate: “Manifestations of Multiple Sclerosis in Adults,” “Patient education: Multiple sclerosis in adults (The Basics).”

Multiplesclerosisnewstoday.org: “Heat Intolerance.”

Temperature: “Temperature sensitivity in multiple sclerosis: An overview of its impact on sensory and cognitive symptoms.”

MSfocusmagazine.org: “13 Tactics to Beat the Heat,” “Hydration -- What Do You Really Need?” “The Two Types of Exercise for People with MS,” “Water Exercise: A Cool (and Easy) Way to Exercise.”

Energy.gov: “LED Lighting.”

Multiple Sclerosis Society (U.K.): "Hot and Cold: The Effects of Temperature on MS."

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: "Keep Cool: Multiple Sclerosis and Heat Tolerance."

Multiple Sclerosis Association of America: "Cooling Distribution Program."

Multiple Sclerosis Foundation: "Cooling Program."

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