What You Need To Know About Colds And Flu With MS

The truth about infections and MS.

*This article was first published in 2017. For official recommendations on Covid and MS click here.
If, by the time you’ve finished reading this, you’re afraid to come anywhere near me, then I’ve done my job. It’s not you. It’s your pathogens. Notorious germaphobe and paranoid recluse, Howard Hughes, was on to something with his habit of setting his clothes on fire after a brush with someone sick. The dictionary makes mysophobia sound like a bad thing, and okay, maybe Hughes was a teeny bit mentally ill, but seriously. If cold and flu season has taught us anything, it’s that the majority of the population could stand to dedicate a little more time to soap and water. 
As a paranoid germaphobe myself, I spend the winter months nervously giving the side-eye to everyone with a bit of a red nose. I’ve perfected the art of opening doors and pushing elevator buttons without ever making contact with my skin. I wear gloves as much as possible, and never miss an opportunity to give them a swipe of hand sanitizer. I hate passing the peace, handshakes and hugs, free samples, and food on platters. When I hear anyone cough in public, I say a silent prayer that it was a smoker’s cough and not something communicable. I don’t care if it came from a ten-year-old. Ten-year-olds are first-rate germ factories.  
I am straight-up annoying to everyone I know. 
Annoying or otherwise, my fears have been validated by someone with a PhD. The last time I saw my neurologist we talked about how my MS is sadly progressing, despite my having had all the drugs. The big guns. There are no new DMD’s for me to try, and instead of leaving with a prescription, I left with strict instructions that the best thing I could do to prevent faster progression would be to stop getting UTI’s, and to avoid getting colds or flus like, well, the plague. 
While nobody likes getting sick, the consequences of a cold or infection for someone with MS can be catastrophic. I know, you think I’m being hysterical. But here’s the deal.
People with MS already have out of control immune systems that aren’t good at multi-tasking. Exposure to immune-modulating therapies can make it easier to contract infections, and they can last longer and hit harder. When MS is already messing up your life, getting sick can be debilitating. While this sucks, it’s not even close to the worst part. I could deal with bedrest and Netflix a few times a year. It’s unpleasant but temporary, right? Wrong.
The scariest thing about these infections is that, the trigger-happy MS immune system might be well-intentioned as it seeks to destroy that which it thinks is threatening, but more often than not, it’s completely fucking wrong. Poking at it with a stick can prompt an actual relapse that has nothing to do with snot, coughing, or phlegm. The consequences of a relapse can be permanent neurological damage. Yeah. All because of a cold.                                                  

What do I know? I’m just a paranoid blogger.

You don’t have to take my word for it. In 2006, brainiac neurologist Dr. William A. Sibley won a fancy prize for his research showing the influence of infections on MS relapses. His work proved that up to one-third of MS attacks follow a viral upper respiratory tract infection (that’s colds and flus, bitches).

When I think about the relapses that could have been prevented, I want to barf. 
Colds and flus are a part of life. We have a whole season dedicated to them. But the situation doesn’t have to be as bad as we let it. We live in a culture that values work over well-being, and showing-up over shutting-down. Between our obsessive work culture and out of control FOMO, we’ve convinced ourselves there’s something noble about ploughing through when we’re under the weather, regardless of how this might impact other people. Are we insane?
If you’re coughing or sneezing, put on a Hazmat suit or stay home.

Obviously, the answer for me is to live alone in a castle with a moat full of dragons. But that seems expensive, and unlike Hughes, I have no desire to completely withdraw from society, cootie-ridden though it may be. It’s December. Party season. And I intend to make merry. In fact, The Banker and I are hosting a holiday bash next week. But there won’t be any making out under the mistletoe, and no, you may not have a sip of my drink. If you are lucky enough to be on the guest-list, there will be a bouncer at the door, disguised as a triage nurse, who will take your temperature and give you medical clearance before letting you in. 

Protect yourself.

Consider getting the flu-shot. Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and wash your hands again. This holiday season may the only things we spread be joy, love, and cheer. And if you are coughing, sniffling, or sneezing, please stay home. 

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22 thoughts on “What You Need To Know About Colds And Flu With MS

  1. As a university professor my students scare me. Not only are their hormones out of control but they sneeze, cough and spit on each other excessively. I think it's part of their mating rituals.

  2. Karen (sometimes Carla)

    Great read! I'm a fellow germaphobe. Thought I was SO HEALTHY…owner and teacher at preschool fore 28 years and only took 4 sick days! Little did I know, I had an offer active immune system keeping me "well". First I was diagnosed with a little known autoimmune disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis. A few years after that, diagnosed with MS. My immune system was just going nuts! Now that I'm taking 2 "special" meds, can't be around anyone sick. No sneezing etc. Your post is me all the way, you say it better than I ever could! Thank you for giving me a little chuckle (and dose of reality) today! I'm going to check out your tripping on air site.

  3. Everyone around me seems to be sick these days, so as a newbie, was wondering about this and staying far away. Fingers crossed so hard it hurts. Love your blog, by the way!

  4. Dear Karen (sometimes Carla) DO check her blog! She’s simply the best MS blogger I’ve eve come across.
    TrippingOnAir is ? awesome ?
    p.s. Ardra, I wish you and the Banker my best throughout this season of goo! Love ? n distant but gentle hugs ?,

  5. Agree entirely re avoiding air travel however, as I'm mostly house-bound now, I manage to avoid the flu etc quite effectively. Unfortunately, my husband does have to go out into the world and as he lives here too, some sniffle bugs do find admission to my "fortress". Still, I keep the majority of germs at bay and must confess, I get a mean buzz of satisfaction from of being the healthiest of all my friends for a change, during their colds/flu wintertime blues!! ("Silver Linings" sometimes need to be searched for). Be well. ��

  6. There are some perks!

    I got a terrible flu in December after flying to NYC, and now I travel with a face mask. I feel a little self-conscious, but it's worth it.

    1. Hey Tripping (Ardra?) I love your face mask. Please would you share what brand it Is?
      Totally enjoy your words, especially as a fellow tripping on nothing.

  7. I caught a nasty cold this last October from flying for the first time with MS. It took me 3 weeks to get over it and it totally wiped me out none the less. Thank you for this article.

      1. Sure hoping no one will show up at your party with a bug. Problem is they are sometimes contagious before they show outward symptoms! Nasty little shits! When I lived in China , a lot of Chinese citizens wore face masks in public places and airports and immigration to Hong Kong and Mainland China had devices to check your temperature before you went to immigration. I totally agree that sick people should stay home. Good luck and enjoy that party. I love your blog. ????

        1. You see a few people wearing masks in Toronto now, too. I remember when we had the SARS scare and there were temperature checks everywhere. It’s kind of a stressy vibe, but better to be safe than sorry.

          Thanks so much for reading, Frances! I hope you are well!

  8. A great article to read as I am recovering from a cold ( of which
    I can’t remember the last time I had one ) . My first line of defense is as always WASH,WASH,WASH YOUR HANDS ! Even more than ever. Since the major holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas are approaching, so is air travel to be with family with their new additions of children.

  9. Ermagosh – I have had infections trigger my MS as well(because I didnt feel gross enough ALREADY) – it sucks very muchly. Stay well!

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