The season of colds, flus and viruses is upon us. For normal people, getting one of these is no fun, but they soon get well and life goes on. For those of us with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease, these sicknesses are detrimental to our overall health.
What to Know
1. When a person with an autoimmune disease gets sick, those fighter T-cells from the immune system get to work to combat the invading bacteria or virus. Unfortunately those cells goof up on the job and attack the body instead of the real villains. For multiple sclerosis, the central nervous system is attacked; for patients of rheumatoid arthritis, the joints are attacked; for lupus, the body’s organs are attacked, and so forth.
For a person with MS, the attack means that inflammation in the nervous system will likely occur, causing present MS symptoms to worsen and perhaps causing new symptoms to appear. The probability of a relapse is high, often followed by residual damage to one or more areas of the CNS.
To make matters worse, because the immune system isn’t working properly, recovery time is extended. A normal person may recover from a cold in five days; recovery for a person with MS or an autoimmune disease may take up to ten days or even longer.
2. Drugs taken to treat MS (DMT’s) suppress the immune system. Corticosteroids used to treat MS relapses also suppress the immune system. These have a dual purpose: to suppress the immune system to avoid releasing the T-fighter cells and to reduce the inflammation that an attack ultimately causes. During an MS relapse, steroids (Solu-medrol, predisone…) are usually prescribed in high doses to quickly remedy these two problems. The downside to these benefits is that the person is left highly vulnerable to getting sick or infected because the immune system is suppressed.
Another example is an MS treatment available called Acthar. It is an option to treat MS relapses and inflammation differently from steroids; however, like steroids it suppresses the immune system and increases the chances of getting infections and illnesses.
3. Depression, anxiety and fatigue are common symptoms of MS and other diseases/chronic illnesses. Sickness and infections exacerbate these symptoms. As the winter season drags on, these symptoms are often affected even more. A rolling stone gathers moss…
What to Do
1. Take all measures to keep your resistance high and your exposure to infections, colds and viruses low:
• Make sure to get a good night sleep, eat properly, and drink plenty of water to keep the body healthy. Take vitamins, especially the B’s to boost the immune system.
• Constantly wash hands, don’t share food or drinks, and never put fingers in the mouth, nose or eyes. Take hand sanitizer with you and use it often, such as in a bathroom, after reading magazines or shaking hands with someone. Avoid rubbing your eyes, sharing food, or putting things in your mouth, like a pen. Take your own bottle of water in lieu of drinking from a water fountain.
• Stay away from people with colds or viruses. If someone who wants to get together with you is sick, suggest having a phone chat instead. When it is someone you live or work with, keep your distance from them as much as possible. Put kisses and hugs on hold, and then double up on them when the sickness passes. Teach kids to wash their hands, use the chicken-wing when sneezing, and all of the things listed above.
2. With regard to flu shots, it should be a personal decision regardless of what doctors or researchers advise about shots. Many people choose to use commonsense methods to avoid the flu and don’t want the risk of any side effects from annually developed vaccines on what the ‘new’ strains are expected to be.
3. Check the inserts that come with your medications to learn whether they can effect the immune system.
4. If you have an infection (e.g. sinus), call your doctor for an antibiotic.
5. If you have a virus, try to hang in there and tolerate the MS symptoms until the sickness is over (even if it is causing a relapse/flare-up).
• Again, recovery from a sickness for a MSer is usually longer because of the immune system dysfunction. The waiting can be a real burden on our patience, adding stress. Getting on steroids while ill can cause a longer recovery period while leaving you exposed to getting something else.
• Take extra steps to rest, take care yourself, build the resistance up, and try to recover on your own.
• If you can’t hang in there, consult with your doctor about a course of action. While colds, flus and viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics, the symptoms of these sicknesses can be treated for comfort (example: a decongestant or cough suppressant).
6. If the cold/sickness is over and the MS symptoms stay intensified afterwards, then call the doctor to discuss steroids because at this point the MS is probably active.
7. Remember that heat has an adverse effect on many people living with MS. Having a fever that frequently accompanies a virus or flu can significantly intensify MS symptoms. Treat a fever with aspirin or ibuprofen, cool packs, and plenty of water/ice chips to reduce some of the negative impact the sickness is having on your symptoms.
8. Fight the winter doldrums by finding ways to overcome depression and anxiety. Rest often to help with fatigue.
While those suffering from MS or another chronic illness do not have control all of the time, there are things that can be done to have control some of the time. This is one of those times we can help take control.
Author/MS Counselor/Living with MS