People with multiple sclerosis (MS) should try to take extra precautions to prevent the flu. These precautions include avoiding people who are sick and getting an annual flu shot.

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People with MS may experience temporary relapses of symptoms if they get the flu. Keep reading for more information on how MS and the flu interact.

Some research, albeit in a mouse model, suggests that if someone with MS becomes sick with the flu, it can cause their MS symptoms to flare or relapse. As a result, a doctor may need to adjust their medications or treatment plans to help address the recurring symptoms.

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture explains that for those with MS, an upper respiratory infection may trigger a series of immune responses that lead to a relapse. However, the exact way in which upper respiratory infections cause relapses is not clear.

According to some experts, having a fever can make MS symptoms worse. However, unlike with an actual relapse, these new or worse symptoms do not usually last for longer than 24 hours. They generally go away once the body’s temperature has returned to normal. Doctors refer to this as a pseudoexacerbation.

However, the longer a person has the flu, the more likely they are to experience an MS relapse. As a result, it is usually best to treat the flu with over-the-counter fever reducers and antiviral medications as soon as possible.

Can someone with MS get a flu shot?

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society (NMSS) suggests that people with MS should follow vaccination guidelines and get an annual flu vaccine — but only if they are not taking steroids or currently experiencing a relapse. Most injectable flu vaccines contain a dead virus, which experts consider safe for those with MS.

It is important to note that those experiencing a relapse or taking steroids to treat a relapse or flare will need to wait until the relapse has resolved or until they have completed that treatment before getting a flu shot. This is because their immune systems are weakened.

In general, people with MS should always talk with a doctor to make sure that they will not experience any interactions between their MS treatments and the flu vaccine.

People with MS should also avoid getting a live virus or live-attenuated vaccination if they are taking a disease-modifying therapy (DMT).

In addition, the NMSS recommends against the live flu mist vaccine, especially for those taking DMTs. In general, people should talk with a doctor if they have questions or concerns about vaccinations.

It is not always possible to avoid the flu, but it is best for a person with MS to take precautions against getting it.

In addition to getting a flu shot, there are several things a person can do to reduce their exposure and the likelihood of getting sick.

Tips for preventing the flu

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a person can take the following steps to help prevent getting the flu:

  • If sick, stay home from work.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Regularly wash the hands with soap and sanitizer.
  • Cover the mouth and nose when sneezing.
  • Practice good hygiene and keep surfaces clean and sanitized.
  • Avoid touching the nose, mouth, and eyes.

Are there specific risk factors?

According to a recent study, people with MS have a higher risk of infection than the general population. In addition, the steroids that doctors give to treat relapses can suppress or weaken the immune system.

For these reasons, it is even more important for those with MS to take extra precautions to avoid getting sick.

According to research from 2015, the majority of people with MS experience two upper respiratory infections per year. When these occur, the person is twice as likely to experience an MS relapse.

As a result, taking precautions to prevent upper respiratory infections — and, when appropriate, getting a vaccination — can help prevent MS relapses.

At the first sign of flu-like symptoms, a person should talk with a doctor. The doctor may be able to prescribe medications to help shorten the duration of the flu or at least make the symptoms more manageable.

Those with MS should also take time off from work, school, or other engagements to rest as much as possible.

In addition, the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation suggests drinking plenty of water, herbal tea, or other sugar-free fluids, and using nasal sprays, tissues, and eye drops to manage symptoms. Always check with a doctor before using any medicated product.

Before a person starts any treatment, it is important that a doctor has provided the correct diagnosis of their condition.

For example, a bad cold can sometimes have many of the same symptoms as the flu. People with MS should also make sure that a doctor knows all the medications that they are currently taking before they prescribe any treatments for the flu.

For those with MS, the most important thing is to get any fever under control. Experts suggest that people with MS treat the flu with:

  • over-the-counter pain relievers that can reduce fever, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • antiviral medications, if a doctor agrees
  • rest

A person with MS should talk with a doctor if over-the-counter treatments or prescription medications are no longer working to control their symptoms.

The doctor can help determine if adjustments are necessary in terms of treating the flu or treating MS. They can also decide if other medical interventions are necessary.

People with MS should contact a doctor at the beginning of cold and flu season to discuss when it is safe to get a flu shot. The doctor may provide the shot immediately, as long as the person is not currently experiencing a relapse.

If a person comes down with the flu, they should take time off from work, school, or other engagements. They should talk with a doctor to see if they can prescribe any medications to help shorten the duration of the flu or relieve the symptoms.

Some experts also recommend that a person should contact a doctor if they experience symptoms such as:

  • vomiting
  • muscle aches
  • fever greater than 102°F (38.9°C)
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • chills
  • difficulty breathing

People with MS should take precautions to help prevent getting the flu each year.

These precautions can include getting the flu shot (unless a doctor recommends against it), avoiding people who are sick, and keeping the hands and all surfaces clean and sanitized.

A person with MS should talk with a doctor ahead of time about the best treatment option if they get the flu.