Colds and Flu When You Have Multiple Sclerosis

A cold or flu is no fun for anyone, but if you have multiple sclerosis (MS), it can mean extra trouble. Your MS symptoms might get worse, or you could have a relapse. But there are steps you can take to tame your infection and keep from getting sick in the first place.

When a Cold or Flu Hits

You're more likely to catch a cold or flu virus if you have MS, especially if you take certain medicines that curb your immune system -- your body's defense against germs. And when you get sick with the flu, your MS raises the chances of health problems that may need treatment at your doctor's office or a hospital.

It's important to know whether your illness is a cold or the flu so you can take the best care of yourself. A cold often sneaks up on you slowly, but the flu comes on fast, often with a fever.

Flu symptoms are usually worse than cold symptoms. Colds can make you feel bad for a few days but don't usually cause other health problems. With the flu, you can feel bad for weeks and you could get complications like pneumonia.

You can catch the flu from someone before they have symptoms. Be prepared to take care of yourself if illness strikes. Make sure you have the right supplies on hand, like pain relievers, fever reducers, hand sanitizer, tissues, and a thermometer.

Treatment for a Cold or Flu

If you do get the flu, the sooner you can get treatment, the better. If you can visit your doctor within 48 hours of getting sick, you may be able to get an antiviral medicine that can lessen flu symptoms and the chance of health problems.

Nothing can cure a cold or the flu, but you can speed up the healing process. Get lots of rest. You'll recover faster and help get your immune system back on track as soon as possible.

Also try these tips:

  • Drink lots of water and other clear fluids to stay hydrated.
  • Eat nutritious food to get better faster. Chicken soup really does help.
  • Treat a fever or cough with over-the-counter medicines.
  • Take antiviral medicine if your doctor prescribes it.

If you don't seem to be getting better after a week or so, or if you feel too sick to take good care of yourself, call your doctor and find out any steps you should take to protect your health.

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What to Do When MS Symptoms Get Worse

The rise in body temperature from a fever can make your MS symptoms worse. Doctors call this a "pseudoexacerbation."

This isn't the same as having a relapse, when you have new or worse symptoms that last for more than 24 hours. Pseudoexacerbations are a flare of symptoms you've had before that go away once your body temperature returns to normal. They don't cause more damage or make your MS get worse.

Bring your fever down with over-the-counter medicines like ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help avoid a pseudoexacerbation and be more comfortable while you're getting better.

Preventing Colds and the Flu

Your first line of defense against the flu: Get a vaccine. Studies show that the standard-dose shot is safe for people with MS. It has an inactive virus that won't raise your chances of a relapse, no matter what MS treatment you're on.

Don't get the high-dose flu shot, though, which hasn't been studied in people with MS. Also avoid the nasal flu spray, which has a live virus and isn't recommended for people with a weakened immune system, including those with MS.

You'll need to get your flu shot 6 weeks or more before certain MS treatments. Be sure to ask your neurologist about how any of your medicines could interact with the flu shot.

Keep in mind that the shot takes about 2 weeks to fully start working, so you could still get the flu during that time. Your flu symptoms won't be as bad, though, and you'll get better sooner.

If you're having a serious MS relapse, where you're having trouble with daily activities, your doctor will likely tell you to wait 4 to 6 weeks after the relapse started to get a flu shot.

Besides a flu vaccine, follow these health tips to keep the flu and colds away:

  • Avoid sick people.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, or use hand sanitizer if they're not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth since those are key ways a virus gets into your body.
  • At home and work, wipe down your phone, door handles, and light switches. Viruses can live on surfaces for hours.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on March 23, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Cleveland Clinic: "Multiple Sclerosis: Q & A," "Avoid 8 Common Triggers to Make Your Life with MS Easier."

MS Focus Magazine: "Relapse and the Immune System: What's Really Going On?"

CDC: "Cold Versus Flu," "CDC Says 'Take 3' Actions to Fight the Flu," "Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine [LAIV] (The Nasal Spray Flu Vaccine)."

Getreadyforflu.org: "Set Your Clocks, Check Your Stocks: Cold & flu supplies."

Multiple Sclerosis Association of America: "What is a ‘pseudoexacerbation’?"

National Multiple Sclerosis Society: "Vaccinations," "Immunization."

Mayo Clinic: "Cold and flu viruses: How long can they live outside the body?"

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