How to Handle MS and the Flu

How to Handle MS and the Flu

Dealing With MS and the Flu

I grew up in the mid-70s, early 80s. Life was simpler then; we didn’t have instant communication and constant streams of media. We didn’t clutch access to information from the entire world in the palms of our hands. In some ways, we lived more in the moment — more on life’s terms.

Whenever my brothers and I were sick as kids, my mom had a definitive and effective means of keeping order. She would get out the sickie-bell, the joke bag and the puke bucket. Even now, thinking of the gaudy French provincial art on the sides of that dreadful bucket makes me queasy.

The system was simple. The sickie bell was always at our side; we rang it whenever we needed something, like an extra blanket, warm liquefied gelatin, or a bit of affection. Ringing the bell was also useful for when the puke bucket had served its purpose.

The joke bag was a worn, brown paper lunch bag. It contained about 100 comic cut-outs from the 50s and 60s.

Every time we got the flu, we’d be sequestered to our beds. We’d pour through those humorous illustrations and captions from the Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal and the like, entertained as though we’d never read them before.

The memories from 40 years ago come back as if it were yesterday. As a kid, I thought the flu was part of every year. It was inevitable, just like snow days and recess indoors because of the icy chill of winter.


The flu kept us out of school and confined to our beds where all necessities were provided for.

Winter With MS

I am 48 and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) 14 months ago. This winter, the flu hit me like a ton of bricks.

Within hours, I was in the throes of a very unpleasant and scary illness. Unlike the child who felt safe without a thought to what might happen, I worried — I didn’t know what to expect with these new symptoms and feelings.

At its most intense state, my body felt like a bag of wet cement. I was listless and heavy and I couldn’t rise out of bed or sit down easily.

Vertigo took over as if there were a number of cyclones battling in my head. I could not recall ever feeling this ill with any flu prior to living with MS.

My temperature peaked at 102.5 degrees. I had the shakes, aching muscles, nausea and extreme congestion. Two days later, my temperature took a nosedive.

My thermometer read 95.5 degrees and my body felt strange — my extremities were freezing cold and I felt weak. Upon learning that hypothermia sets in at 95 degrees, I went to a clinic right away.

This resulted in a careful examination. Luckily, after ruling out pneumonia and a variety of other maladies, I was sent home with a six-day antibiotic pack.

What Was Then and What Is Now

Looking at several more days in bed, I pined for the simplicity of years past. I missed the sickie bell, joke bag, and mom handling all details and methods of care. I did not miss the French provincial puke pail.

I begrudgingly complied and took the antibiotics. Seven days later I was better, but not by much. It took a couple of weeks before I felt close to normal.

Looking Ahead

Determining a course of action for flu prevention is a bit more involved for people with MS than the general population. MS symptoms, treatment plans, medications and progression are quite different for everyone with this disease.

It is highly recommended you consult with your physician when considering a flu vaccination. There are currently over a dozen options for the general population, categorized as either live virus or inactivated virus medications.

Live virus vaccinations, such as FluMist nasal spray, transmit weakened but active microbes into the body. They “teach” the immune system to ward off the virus.

Since MS patients’ immune systems are already compromised, live virus vaccinations are not recommended — especially for those on immunosuppressants. Also, if any relative in your household has gotten a live virus vaccination, it is a good idea to consult with your doctor.

Inactivated vaccines are not as strong as live ones. They are made up of microbes of the flu virus that have been killed off.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says these are safe for people with MS, including those taking interferon medication. Flu shots in this category cannot cause the flu and are considered safe for our already weakened immune systems.

As a preventative measure, wait four to six weeks after any MS relapse or flare-up to get a flu shot. For Lemtrada patients, it is recommended you get a flu shot six weeks prior to infusion.

High-dose flu shots, designed for people over 65, are not recommended for anyone with MS. These vaccines carry four times the antigens as regular flu shots and have not been studied for MS patients.

New Attitude

Nostalgia is all that is left of allowing things like the flu to simply run its course. Once diagnosed with MS, there is always more to take into consideration in terms of flu prevention and care. I suppose this is just another part of learning to cope with a lifelong disease.

If you do get sick, pay attention to how your body is feeling and reacting. Rest up and plan for more days out of the game than pre-MS.

Be good to yourself — watch for things that seem unusual or don’t seem right, like prolonged high fever or severe dehydration. Get to a physician sooner rather than later.

I think back to those long-gone days of coming down with the flu as a kid. I hadn’t a care in the world, save for getting better.

I feel a bit guilty about trying to fake my mom out in order to say home for one more day. I suspect she knew all too well what I was doing — it’s just that I wanted so much to hide away from the world for just a bit more.

I suppose you could say with MS I have the perfect excuse to do just that — be careful what you wish for.

Up next:
MS Triggers

Five Common MS Triggers and How to Avoid Them

MS can strike us down when we’re least expecting it, but there are certain things known to cause a flare-up. Learn about MS triggers and how to avoid them.
by Abigail Budd on September 26, 2018
Click here to see comments