Coping with Cold Weather When You Have Multiple Sclerosis

When it comes to extreme weather, both heat and cold can affect your MS

How MS Symptoms Can Worsen in Cold Weather
How MS Symptoms Can Worsen in Cold Weather. Tudor Costache/Getty Images

Cold weather and multiple sclerosis (MS) would seem to go well together, especially for those who suffer from MS-related heat intolerance. But for many living with MS, symptoms can actually worsen as the temperature drops.

How Temperature Extremes Affect People with MS

Many with multiple sclerosis (MS) are heat intolerant to the point of being unable to function outside at peak summer temperatures. For many, temperatures of 80 degrees or higher are almost unbearable.

 

However, what is even more interesting about temperature tolerance among people with multiple sclerosis is that many say that while hot temperatures are not comfortable, cold weather and MS don’t go very well together for them, either.

For instance, some people find that cold weather can cause muscle cramping, stiffness, and tightness. It can also worsen the MS hug—the gripping feeling around the torso that is caused by spasticity of the tiny muscles between the ribs.

Others find that they feel more more fatigued in winter months. This could be an indirect result of coping with some of the muscle-related symptoms mentioned above. It could also be that the shorter days and limited sunlight are making depression worse—as you may know, depression can be a symptom of MS.

Still others notice that the cold makes walking difficult, which could also be a result of muscle stiffness (worsening spasticity).

Why Does Cold Affect Some People With MS

Experts do not really know why cold temperatures worsen symptoms for some people with MS.

That being said, new data is emerging all the time on the role of vitamin D in MS. Experts have discovered that low vitamin D plays a role in developing MS, but now it’s looking like vitamin D levels have an impact on relapses and the way we experience symptoms.

It’s been well established that vitamin D levels in people are lower in winter months due to less exposure to sunlight (which is necessary for the body to produce vitamin D). Perhaps we feel our MS symptoms more acutely when our vitamin D reserves are at their winter lows.

Tips for Coping With Cold Weather and MS

Keep your hands and feet warm. Many people with MS also have a condition called Raynaud's phenomenon, in which the capillaries in the fingers and toes overreact in the cold. As a result, the area under the fingernails and toenails turns blue and can be very painful.

Soak up the sunshine. Go outside during the warmest part of a sunny winter day and soak in a bit of warmth. Even better, get a little exercise outside while you’re at it. And remember, sunlight helps your body produce vitamin D.

Don't overdo the heat inside. As a result of the cold, you may run really hot baths or showers. But be careful. Remember, extreme heat is not our friend, either.

Warm yourself from the inside. Try drinking hot beverages like a cup of hot chocolate, tea, or decaf coffee to take the chill off and warm your body’s core faster.

A Word From Verywell

Cold weather and MS may not go together as we might like, but we can learn to tolerate the combination better. Like many other MS-related situations that we must get through, a little strategic planning about winter activities can help you have at least a little control over symptoms. Put some thought into what you enjoy doing in the winter, take proper precautions, and get the most out of the cold months.

Sources:

Brola W et al. Association of seasonal serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels with disability and relapses in relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2016 Sep;70(9):995-9.

National MS Society. (2016). Heat and temperature sensitivity.

Stachowiak J. (2012). National Multiple Sclerosis Society MS Connection: MS symptoms and winter weather.

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