The Flu and MS: Tips to Protect Yourself

Patient Expert

The emerging autumn colors are gorgeous outside. The cool crisp air is invigorating. Everything is beautiful outside while fall provides welcome relief to the brutal heat of the summer. I love the fall season.

However, with the fall and winter come cold and flu season. It’s the time of year that allergy sniffles may be replaced with respiratory infections. Anytime someone around me coughs or sneezes while I’m out and about, I become paranoid about germ exposure and consider whether I should have just stayed home for protection.

Combining normal multiple sclerosis symptoms with the effects of the flu is a recipe for disaster. Being sick can throw your MS into hyperdrive and make you feel completely incapacitated. It can be a miserable experience, one that none of us want to face.

Reduce risk of flu

Short of never venturing outside of your home, there are simple steps you can take to reduce the risk of developing influenza, or the flu.

1. Get vaccinated. The annual flu vaccine provides protection against selected strains of the flu virus each year.

2. Avoid close contact. Keep your distance from people who are sick. When you are not feeling well, avoid exposing others. Stay home if you can.

3. Cover your mouth and nose. When you sneeze or cough, use a tissue to contain the moisture droplets being hurled by your lungs. I am usually too slow with grabbing a tissue, so I will often quickly grab the top of my shirt to cough/sneeze into my chest behind my shirt. It may look odd, but it contains my breath and keeps my hands clean.

4. Clean your hands. Washing your hands routinely will help protect you from germs. Soap and water are best, but if they are not available, you can use an alcohol-based hand solution. And please, don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.

5. Focus on healthy habits. To keep your body strong and better prepared to fight infection, be sure that you eat nutritious food, drink plenty of fluids, stay physically active, get good sleep, and manage stress.

How to fight the flu when living with MS

Prevention is vital, but once you develop the flu, it’s important to be patient with yourself and maintain hope that things will get better. Symptoms of the flu — fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, fatigue, gastrointestinal distress — are enough to face, but when combined with MS, they become just the tip of the iceberg.

Why do I sound so dramatic? Anything that can increase your body temperature, including influenza, may cause a noticeable increase in MS symptoms. Whatever normally bothers you can get worse and make you feel like a big relapse is coming on. Instead, this is a pseudoexacerbation, which should resolve once the infection has cleared, but that may not be for one to two weeks.

1. See your doctor. As soon as you feel flu-like symptoms coming on, visit your primary care doctor for testing. Antiviral medication started within days of flu onset can reduce the severity and length of the illness. Do not hesitate to go to the hospital emergency department if symptoms are severe. Influenza can be very dangerous for people who have compromised immune systems, due to age, chronic disease, or medication use.

2. Stay hydrated. When you aren’t feeling well, one of the last things you want to do is get up to fetch a glass of water every hour or two, never mind the resulting trips to the bathroom to eliminate fluids. But you must stay hydrated to thin mucus and keep your organs happy as your body fights the infection.

3. Replenish electrolytes. All the fluids passing through your body might carry away important substances your body needs, such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium. Products such as Pedialyte Advanced Care Plus or Gatorade are convenient but packed full of sugar. You can make a simple electrolyte replacement drink with water, fresh lemon juice, sea salt, and raw honey, sugar, or stevia to taste.

4. Take precautions. If your MS symptoms include weakness, dizziness, imbalance, fatigue, or confusion, those symptoms may be exacerbated during the flu. Be extra careful when walking or transferring to avoid falls. Avoid using dishes or glasses that may break if you drop them; cleaning up extra messes is the last thing you want to be doing when sick. Avoid driving in case your normal response times are affected.

5. Contact your neurologist. If your MS symptoms change significantly and you are unsure what to do about them, please do not hesitate to contact your neurologist or MS nurse for advice and consultation. There may be ways to adjust your symptomatic medications to help you reduce the effect of increased symptoms until the infection has resolved.

6. Care for yourself. Get plenty of rest. Set an alarm to prompt yourself to drink fluids on a regular schedule. Eat nutritious foods that soothe the throat and stomach; broth-based soups and fruit smoothies are nice. Elicit help from a friend or use a grocery delivery service to stock up on easy-to-prepare food.

7. Prevent recontamination. After you get over the flu, break out a new toothbrush and carefully clean household surfaces such as faucet handles, door handles and knobs, light switches, and countertop surfaces. I like to try to stay on top of disinfecting, even in my car. I will grab a few disinfecting wipes frequently supplied near the grocery store entrance to clean my steering wheel after shopping.

See more helpful articles:

What is an MS Relapse versus a Pseudoexacerbation?

Annual Flu Vaccine, MS, and MS Medications

Top 50 Symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis

10 Lessons I’ve Learned Since Being Diagnosed with MS