Seasonal Allergies and Multiple Sclerosis

Is the pollen making things terrible for you?

Although I suffered from all sorts of allergies as a child, such as hay fever, and allergies to cigarette smoke, a couple rounds of allergy shots seemed to really take care of them.

I didn’t really experience any more seasonal allergies as I grew up – maybe itchy eyes here and there or a mild runny nose, but nothing that lasted for more than a day or two.

That was until this year. We have temporarily relocated to a city where the “allergy watch” seems like a fun pastime for the residents.

In the Fall and now, in the early Spring, a variety of things are blooming that I am learning release pollen that is almost toxic in its effects on certain people (myself included). Well-meaning people look at my coughing, drippy, red-eyed self and say, “Oh, yeah – I remember my first year here. I thought I was going to die during (enter the tree/plant) season.”

That is all fine, but like many people with multiple sclerosis, my first thoughts go to how this will affect my MS and the multitude of symptoms that I have.

Do allergies impact multiple sclerosis?

Many people have wondered this and there have been over 1,000 scientific articles published on the subject. After all, allergy symptoms are caused by an immune reaction and MS is an autoimmune disease (meaning that the body’s immune system attacks itself, namely the myelin that coats the nerve fibers). In other words, an “overactive” immune system causes both MS and allergies, so perhaps people who have an immune system prone to one are prone to the other.

As stated in one abstract: “Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an inflammatory disease of the central nervous system that expresses a typical type 1 immune response (Th1). Allergies, on the other hand, present with high levels of type 2 (Th2) cytokines. Some authors observed that Th1 and Th2 diseases could coexist in the same subject.”

However, the authors of the article reviewed all 1,000-plus articles and concluded, “The results showed that there is no evidence supporting an association between allergic diseases and MS.”

Strangely, one Italian study did seem to find a slight link between allergies and MS, concluding that allergies are slightly protective against MS, meaning that allergy sufferers are a little less likely to develop MS.

Allergies and MS symptoms

However, despite no scientific association between allergies and MS relapses or progression, as a person with MS, I will assert that my seasonal allergies are certainly making me feel worse. Whether these are pure allergy symptoms, or the allergies are making certain MS symptoms worse, doesn’t really matter to me. I just know that I feel much more “MS-y” than usual in the following ways:

  • Fatigue: I feel much more tired than usual, as if my MS has “kicked up a notch.” I keep needing a nap to get me through the day, and even a nap of 30 minutes is not at all restorative, but just enough to buy me a couple of hours on my feet.
  • Cognitive dysfunction: Since the allergies came on full-force, I feel like there is a delay of a second or two between my thoughts and my ability to execute or vocalize them. This is slightly different from my usual MS word-finding difficulties and short-term memory problems, but it is certainly not helping those, either.
  • Tremor: I have noticed an almost-constant tremor in my hands, whereas I usually just experience intention tremor (and even that comes and goes).
  • Coughing: I know this is a combination of allergies and MS symptoms. My MS-related respiratory dysfunction is such that only the slightest thing (dryness, a slight chest cold, etc.) brings on a coughing fit, but with these allergies, it is pretty much constant when I am outside. Luckily, going inside allows me to get it under control and even have cough-free periods of an hour, here and there.

Bottom Line: Again, I don’t really care where the line is between my MS symptoms and those brought on by allergies – I just want to go back to my already-impaired “normal” state, since I have learned how to function just fine with those particular symptoms.

I will say that I think some of the things that I’m noticing are most likely made worse by some of the medications that I am on, such as an Albuterol inhaler and various antihistamines (see MS Fatigue and Antihistamines).

I am counting the days until the pollen gets down to a more normal level (at this time, all black cars appear green from the thick layer of yellow on them) and I can stop taking these allergy medications and go outside and take a deep breath without the fear of coughing until I feel light-headed (or wet my pants). Until nature runs its course, I am at the mercy of the pollen.

I have put together some tips that might help my fellow MS allergy sufferers:

Sources:

Monteiro L, Souza-Machado A, Menezes C, Melo A. Association between allergies and multiple sclerosis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Acta Neurol Scand. 2011 Jan;123(1):1-7.

Pedotti R, Farinotti M, Falcone C, et. al. Allergy and multiple sclerosis: a population-based case-control study. Mult Scler. 2009 Aug;15(8):899-906.

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