SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19, is highly contagious, especially through close personal contact.
Although anyone can get it, most people who become severely ill or die from COVID-19 have serious underlying illnesses. Because the disease is new, researchers have not performed any specific research on multiple sclerosis (MS) and COVID-19.
According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there is no evidence that people with MS face a higher risk of COVID-19.
However, people who need to attend regular medical appointments may be at greater risk of exposure to the virus. Some MS symptoms may make people more vulnerable to serious COVID-19 symptoms.
Learn more about how COVID-19 might affect people with MS in this article.
Having MS does not necessarily increase the risk of contracting the virus or developing complications from COVID-19.
However, certain people with MS may be at higher risk, including those with:
MS slowly damages nerves, which interferes with the brain’s ability to communicate with the muscles. This can affect many aspects of daily life, including movement.
People with advanced MS may have severe mobility issues.
Mobility issues may complicate COVID-19 in several ways:
- A person who is sedentary or who spends most of their time lying down or sitting in a wheelchair may suffer other health issues, such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Both of these conditions may increase a person’s chances of developing COVID-19.
- Spending most of the day lying down or in bed may cause respiratory secretions to accumulate. This can cause breathing problems and aspiration pneumonia, which may intensify the effects of COVID-19.
- The body’s natural immune response to infections may make other symptoms of MS worse, including breathing and mobility issues.
Lung health issues
Some people with MS develop breathing or lung health issues. This can happen when a person is no longer able to control the muscles that support breathing.
MS may also make it more difficult to clear the mucus and other fluids in the airway, which might increase the risk of pneumonia.
Some MS medications may also affect breathing, especially opioids and certain other pain medicines. These drugs may slow breathing.
People with lung or breathing issues due to MS may be more likely to develop COVID-19 complications, though no specific research has examined this hypothesis.
Because MS is an autoimmune disease, many MS drugs target the immune system.
Some immunomodulating drugs also weaken the immune system. People who take these medications may have a higher risk of developing COVID-19 and experiencing prolonged and more severe infections.
There is no evidence that people with MS should stop taking their medication.
Doing so may make MS symptoms worse and may increase a person’s vulnerability to severe infections. People with MS must discuss medication options with a neurologist or other doctor.
No current evidence suggests that COVID-19 is more dangerous for people with MS. Specific people with MS may, however, face a higher risk. A person might experience more complications if they have:
- breathing problems
- mobility issues
People over the age of 60 face the most significant risk from COVID-19. While some younger people with underlying conditions have died from COVID-19, the overwhelming majority of deaths have been among older adults.
Death rates increase with each decade of age. An article in The Lancet indicated that 13.4% of people over 80 with the virus in China died.
COVID-19 is similar to a severe cold or flu at first. Some people do not experience any symptoms at all. According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, some symptoms that could indicate that a person has COVID-19 include:
- a fever
- a cough, especially a dry or unproductive cough
- shortness of breath
Symptoms can vary from person to person and may be similar to cold or flu symptoms.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a person with MS should take the following steps to reduce their risk of getting COVID-19:
- Avoid unnecessary medical appointments. Ask a doctor about telehealth services and delaying non-vital procedures.
- Stock up on prescription drugs. Ask a doctor to prescribe for 3 months of medication if possible.
- Practice frequent hand washing. Wash hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before eating, after using the bathroom, before and after touching the face, after contact with others, and after any contact with potentially contaminated surfaces (such as after going to the grocery store).
- Avoid going out in public as much as possible. Order groceries and other necessities instead of going to buy them.
- Maintain physical distance: Keep at least 6 feet away from others when in public.
- Understand personal risk factors: Talk to a doctor about individual risk factors and strategies to avoid getting sick.
There is currently no cure for COVID-19. Instead, treatment focuses on managing symptoms and reducing the risk of severe complications.
People with severe symptoms may need to stay in the hospital or move to the intensive care unit (ICU).
Some people need to use a ventilator so that they can breathe. If a person develops a secondary infection, such as bacterial pneumonia, they may need antibiotics.
For mild to moderate illness, treatment is similar to the common cold or flu. People can recover by staying home, resting, and drinking plenty of fluids.
People with COVID-19 should avoid others, and if they live in a home with other people, they should remain quarantined as much as possible. This is not possible for everyone, including some people with MS that require help or care from others.
People with MS who test positive should:
- Talk to a doctor about the next steps. Some people may need to change their MS medication, but avoid doing this without first talking to a doctor.
- Call ahead before going to a doctor or the hospital. This can give them time to make any necessary preparations.
- Closely monitor symptoms. Let a doctor know about any changes in severity.
- Avoid other people as much as possible. The infection is highly contagious.
COVID-19 can be scary, especially for people with other medical conditions. It is essential to take the risk seriously. The best way to remain safe is to reduce the chances of contracting the virus by following all hygiene and other safety guidelines.
However, even among the highest risk groups, most people recover. There is no evidence that people with MS are more likely to get COVID-19 than anyone else.
People should continue taking their MS medication and contact a doctor as soon as possible if they develop COVID-19 symptoms.