The symptoms of multiple sclerosis vary among individuals, but it is quite common for heat and humidity to cause flare-ups. Cooling vests contain insulated ice packs or cooling technology, which can help people cool down, reducing the chance of a flare-up.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition that affects the central nervous system, causing various neurological symptoms. In people who are susceptible to heat, these symptoms can worsen in certain environmental conditions.

This article will look at how heat can affect people with MS. It will also explain how the different types of cooling vests work and provide other tips on how to stay cool.

An image of ice, which people with MS can use to cool down.Share on Pinterest
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For many people with MS, heat temporarily causes their symptoms to worsen. People may refer to this as Uhthoff’s phenomenon. As a person’s body temperature rises, symptoms that can worsen include:

Although heat does not permanently worsen MS, it can change the speed at which nerve pulses travel through the body. The reason for this is that MS damages the nerves’ protective sheath, making them more sensitive to hotter temperatures.

People with MS may also experience the following symptoms with a rise in body temperature:

  • rapid heartbeat
  • increased sweating
  • dizziness
  • trouble concentrating
  • slower reaction times

In addition to hot weather, other factors can increase body temperature. These include:

  • physical activity
  • wearing too much clothing
  • fever
  • taking a hot shower or bath
  • being in the sun

Keeping cool can help people with MS better handle hot conditions. One popular type of cooling device for those with MS is a cooling vest.

A person will usually wear a cooling vest over their clothing, although some types fit underneath clothes. Cooling vests help lower a person’s core body temperature and prevent heat-related symptom flares.

Some MS organizations, such as the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America and the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, offer free cooling vests to people with lower incomes.

People may also be able to apply for cooling clothing through their insurance. Before ordering a cooling vest, a person can contact their insurance provider to find out about available coverage.

Some people use passive vests that cool the body using ice packs, which a person needs to keep in a freezer overnight for the vest to work. Other types of passive cooling vests include:

  • Phase change heat-absorbing cooling vests: These vests do not feel cold to the touch. Instead of cooling the body down using ice packs, they use a material that absorbs heat and prevents the body from getting too hot.
  • Phase change cooling vests: These vests contain liquid pouches that do not reach freezing temperatures but stay cool for longer than ice packs.
  • Gel pack cooling vests: Similar to water-activated headbands for hot weather running, these cooling vests contain lightweight water-activated cooling components.
  • Evaporative cooling vests: This type of vest essentially mimics sweating. People soak the vest in water, and the moisture slowly evaporates to help cool the body. It is not an ideal option for humid conditions, though.

Active cooling vests are another option, but they require electricity to circulate chilled air to cool a person down. Although these types of vests are highly effective, they are expensive and not very portable.

For some people with MS, hot weather can significantly affect their ability to function. Heat intolerance can make it challenging to participate in outdoor and physical activities.

Researchers have looked into practical strategies for combating the adverse effects of heat in people with MS.

A 2017 study suggests that wearing a cooling vest could improve mental and physical performance in heat-intolerant people with MS. In the study, the researchers asked 18 individuals with MS to wear either a cooling vest or a cotton T-shirt during a 7-week physical training program. The results showed that a cooling vest improved emotional well-being, physical and cognitive performance, and perceived fatigue levels.

A 2020 study study found that 10 female participants with MS could walk longer and farther when wearing a lightweight cooling vest.

However, not everyone with MS will benefit from this type of cold therapy. Some people with MS may experience symptom flare-ups with cold weather exposure. In this case, people may need to avoid extremely hot or cold temperatures.

The main consideration when choosing a cooling vest is deciding between a passive or active vest. For most people, a passive cooling vest offers the greatest portability for outdoor activities.

However, for indoor, stationary use, people may find that active cooling vests offer superior cooling performance. Active vests are typically much more expensive than passive options, though.

People can also consider their local climate. If the weather is usually humid, an evaporative cooling vest is not an effective choice. Other factors to consider include:

  • whether a person wants to conceal the vest and wear it underneath their clothing
  • construction and durability
  • vest weight

In addition to cooling vests, people with MS can also try the following accessories to help regulate body temperature:

  • cooling towels
  • cooling hats, caps, or bandanas
  • cooling wristbands
  • cooling neck wraps
  • cooling ankle wraps

People with MS may also find personal misting devices helpful.

Some people may find a cooling vest uncomfortable, or it may not be possible for them to wear one at all times. Other ways to stay cool include:

  • installing air conditioning
  • staying out of direct sunlight
  • showering or bathing in cool or lukewarm water
  • layering clothing so that it is easy to remove
  • opening windows to allow air to circulate
  • drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated
  • using a misting bottle to stay cool
  • applying sunscreen

Additionally, 2018 research suggests that drinking cold water may significantly improve exercise tolerance in people with MS.

A cooling vest is an effective symptom management tool for people with MS who are sensitive to heat.

There are many types of cooling vests, but they fall into two main categories: active and passive. Other types of cooling accessories are also available for heat-sensitive people with MS. Some organizations have distribution programs that offer free cooling accessories.

A person may need to experiment to find the right cooling vest and the best way to wear it.

It is important to note that although a cooling vest may help control a person’s core body temperature, these devices might not suit people with MS who are sensitive to both hot and cold temperature extremes.

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