If you have multiple sclerosis (MS), you might find yourself looking for ways to beat the heat. You’re not alone. Nearly 75% of people with MS have heat sensitivity or intolerance. Research shows that exposure to hot or humid weather may make your MS symptoms like tiredness and visual loss worse. Doctors call this Uhthoff’s phenomenon.
If you’re heat sensitive, you can use ready-made cooling garments specifically designed to keep your body from getting overheated.
Types of Cooling Garments
Cooling garments, if used properly, can not only reduce the effects of heat on your body, but also allow you to go about your day-to-day life without having to worry about overheating. There are two types of cooling methods used in garments or accessories -- active and passive cooling.
Both use different types of cooling mechanisms such as:
- Ice packs
- Gel packs
- Evaporative cooling
The different types of cooling garments available are:
- Cooling vests
- Wet neck wrap
- Ankle wrap
- Wrist wrap
- Hats or caps
What Is Passive Cooling?
This is a more commonly used cooling method in clothes for MS. It’s called passive because clothing that uses this cooling method doesn't rely on a power source to keep you cool. It’s both affordable and portable.
Garments that use passive cooling include:
Wearable water-based ice packs. This type is usually available as vests, hats, or bandanas. It’s usually the least expensive option and uses ice packs that you can freeze before you wear it. It can keep you cool for up to 3 hours. But because you’ll need to keep refreezing the packs if the ice melts, it may limit how long you can use it.
While these are effective at keeping you cool for short periods of time, because they use ice packs, it can sometimes get heavy to wear and bog you down. Make sure not to use the ice packs directly on skin as it can cause frost bites or injury.
Phase changing packs. These garments use a gel-like oil that freezes to keep you cool. It’s usually used in vests. But unlike ice pack-based vests or wearables, the gel has a higher freezing temperature. This allows it to stay cool for a longer period of time. You don’t need a freezer to keep it cool. Instead, to re-cool it, just submerge the clothing in ice water. Also, the gel packs don’t “sweat” on to your skin as they warm up like ice packs do. This helps to keep the clothing dry even as it loses its cool.
It’s available as insertable packs that, once cooled, will remain around 53-55 F for up to 3 hours. Reactivating the gel takes anywhere from 20-30 minutes. Depending on the size, vests can add on anywhere from 1-4 pounds.
Hydrogel packs. Vests contain built-in hydrogen crystals that act as a gel. It’s activated when you place it in water. It’s a much lighter option compared with ice packs, but the drawback is it can only keep you cool for short periods of time.
Water-activated evaporative cooling garments. You can use these cooling garments simply by soaking them in cold water. It has several tiny pockets that contain highly absorbable beads that take in water and expand up to six times its size. It retains the water temperature and cools you as it naturally evaporates. The beads are nontoxic, but still, make sure your kids don’t eat it. It’s available as vests, headbands, or wristbands.
What Is Active Cooling?
Garments that use active cooling are more high-tech. Instead of ice or gel packs, these clothes use a motorized system that circulates cool water around your body. Depending on the make, it can be either battery or electricity powered. This allows for longer cooling.
On the downside, it’s bulky and comes with a hefty price tag. The vests can cost anywhere from $100 up to several thousand dollars. And because you need to connect it to a power source, you may find it's easier to use indoors than when you’re out and about.
Active cooling clothes are usually available as vests or shorts. You can also have it designed to fit specific body parts such as shoulders, elbows, knees, and ankles.
Fabrics to Look For
Besides cooling vests and wraps, there are other ways to stay cool. You can also wear light, loose, and breathable fabrics. These are naturally cool to the touch and designed to promote air flow and wick moisture from your body. Basically, any fabric that allows sweat to evaporate quickly from your skin will help you stay cool.
If you tend to run hot, avoid wearing dark-colored or heavy clothes made from thick fabrics such as fleece, flannel, or wool. These are usually designed to absorb light or trap heat to keep you warm.
How to Pay for Cooling Garments for MS
If you have heat sensitivity and your doctor prescribes a cooling garment, check to see if your health insurance covers it. Some carriers may accept it as a medical device and cover partial or full costs.
But if it doesn’t, several MS-related nonprofit organizations such as the National MS Society have payment assistance programs that help cover the cost. Multiple Sclerosis Foundation has a ‘Cooling Program’ that offers a variety of cooling garments free of charge. The Multiple Sclerosis Association of America also gives out vests and other accessories for free through its “Cooling Distribution Program” if you qualify for it.