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MS and Your Immune System: ‘Tis the Season for the Flu

Those with MS must be vigilant about avoiding bugs because of compromised immune systems.

Fall is my favorite season. I love the change in temperature, the falling of amber leaves, trading flip-flops for loafers, the din of football games, and the joy of the holiday season. There is so much to enjoy, yet this particular Sunday I am sick. I have acquired the first of what will be a long succession of bugs.

Bah! Humbug!

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy tissues and nerves. Those with MS have compromised immune systems. Disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) such as Rituxan (rituximab) and Ocrevus (ocrelizumab) can further compromise the immune system leaving us vulnerable to infection.

I cannot take stronger DMTs because I could die. Forgive my frankness, but few can comprehend my reality where a common bladder or kidney infection has the potential to overwhelm my immune system.

I am extremely vulnerable. I catch bugs most people would easily fend off. When I do contract a virus, the duration and severity of the illness are longer and more debilitating than that endured by others. Because my body is open to infection, I am wary of situations in which my exposure is heightened: Parties, grocery stores, airplanes, movie theaters, workplaces, and doctor’s offices are potential danger zones. It only takes one sneeze, one door handle, one handshake, or one grocery cart handle to take me down.

And I fall hard.

Hence, I take measures to protect myself. I wipe down handles on grocery carts; I open doors with a tissue or sleeve over my hand; I carry hand sanitizer and wash my hands with hot, soapy water. I can control my own behavior, but I cannot control yours.

If you are sick, please stay home. I understand that you don’t want to miss a day’s pay, but I do not want to endure three days of IV steroids to reduce the inevitable inflammation. You might have the energy to grab some groceries, but I do not have the energy to fight pneumonia. You do not want to miss out on a party, but I do not want to miss a scheduled infusion because my health has been compromised.

Your minor cold could be my pneumonia. As my disease progresses, my ability to fight infection declines. Your army may be formidable, but my troops are weary. Your immunity will strengthen while mine will continue to deteriorate.

There is no way to fully protect myself, and I understand that sometimes things just happen. I am on day five of what should have run its course by now. Instead, the malaise is heavy, and new symptoms are beginning to appear — this is how my body reacts to infection.

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