Tips for Managing MS in Fall and Winter

Patient Expert
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Autumn can be a wonderful time of year, when the foliage changes dramatically and a blanket of color spreads across the ground. Listening to the crunch of leaves and joyful laughter as neighborhood children excitedly play in the piles of orange, red, and brown that grown-ups carefully raked into neat piles for leaf collection always puts a smile on my face. I love this time of year.

In a few short weeks, the trees will be bare and the ground will harden due to the sweeping cold of winter. It will rain and we may even have snow in our neck of the woods by New Year’s. Winter is also a beautiful time of year, but brutal on these bones of mine. It can also be a scary season if you live with MS.

Fall and winter bring blessed relief from the humid heat of summer, but they also bring potential dangers, mobility challenges, and increased symptoms. However, research shows that winter does not necessarily bring more MS relapses.

Watch your step

I once told my neurologist about how I had recently tripped off a curb after enjoying a dinner out with family. I seemingly tried to “walk on air” as my feet did not land where they should have in the parking lot.

It was during this appointment that my doctor signed the paperwork for me to obtain an accessible parking permit for my vehicle. He alerted me that wet leaves, thin layers of ice, and chunky snow on sidewalks, streets, parking lots, and crosswalks were all serious hazards and that I needed to reduce my risk of slipping and falling due to any of these dangers.

It’s not just my own falling that I need to worry about; it’s the cars that may not be able to stop quickly enough or divert their direction to avoid colliding with my wobbly self.

Layer up or stow away

Many people living with MS are sensitive to the heat of summer. Did you know that people with MS can be equally sensitive to the cold of the winter?

Cold weather tends to make my muscles get extra stiff. It’s almost as if the blood doesn’t circulate quite as quickly because my body’s not trying to throw off excess heat through perspiration, like it does in the summer. At least that’s what it feels like to me.

I’ve gone to wearing a tank top underneath a long-sleeve shirt beneath a cardigan sweater to keep my core body temperature steady. It’s easy enough to remove a layer or unfasten the cardigan to cool down when necessary. I prefer that my innermost layers be made of wicking fabric that will prevent that awful soppy wetness that comes from sweating in thick cotton clothing.

Gloves are a necessity when spending time outdoors and wrist warmers keep my hands and fingers from slowing to a crawl when I’m working at the computer indoors. Caps and scarves that can be stowed in a tote, coat pocket, or purse are great for when you need something to cover up or when you need to shed a bit to let some body heat out.

Remember, layers are the way to go when it comes to easily regulating your body temperature.

Be aware of seasonal variation in relapses

A number of research studies looking at seasonal variation in relapses have shown that, statistically, people with MS tend to have fewer relapses during the winter months. However, that doesn’t mean that we are immune to relapses in the winter. In fact, the majority of my own relapses over the years have occurred between November and March.

Some of the theories about why relapses might occur in the darker months include fluctuation in serum vitamin D levels (less sun equals lower vitamin D) and seasonal viruses that spread from person to person. Interestingly, higher melatonin levels in the winter may have a protective effect against relapses, but clinical trials are needed to thoroughly explore this theory.

To protect yourself, avoid contact with people who are ill. Get your annual flu shot and ask your doctor about getting one or more of the pneumonia vaccines. Respiratory illnesses can be particularly difficult for people with MS who have difficulty breathing, coughing, or swallowing. We frequently just don’t have the same kind of strength to clear the lungs or possess the immune system to shrug off disease.

Finally, don’t attribute everything you might experience — such as increased numbness, spasticity, fatigue, depression, or sleepiness — to the winter season. These symptoms could be caused by changes in temperature, exposure, or reduced natural sunlight. But they could also signal an MS relapse. If in doubt, always contact your neurology team to report changes in symptoms.