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MS and Summer: Coping Strategies

Posted Jun 07 2010 9:52am

 Yes, the summer is upon us—glorious days made for the beach, hikes, outdoor cafes and concerts, and relaxing by the pool.  But those of us with MS (and some other neurological conditions)—who have to avoid the heat and limit activities that raise our core temperatures—are relegated to enjoying the summer sun from inside our (hopefully) air-conditioned homes and keeping our time outside to a minimum. 

MS patients react to the heat in a myriad of different ways.  It’s not uncommon to experience extreme fatigue, unusual difficulty walking, vision problems, confusion, and sometimes even panic with a few tears.  The key is not to let it get to that point and if it does, to cool off as quickly as possible.  The goal is always to lower our core temperature.

The symptoms we experience in the heat may feel like an exacerbation, but they’re not.  They feel so much like an exacerbation, in fact, that they are often referred to collectively as a pseudo-exacerbation.  They will almost always pass once we are in a cooler place.  It’s also amazing how quickly the symptoms can hit.  In my case it is, literally, instant—usually within 5 seconds from exposure to the heat.  Relief can come just as quickly once I’m in the air conditioning.

If, like me, you are drained, pummeled and cognitively challenged by the heat, but can’t avoid being out in it sometimes anyway, you’ll want to take advantage of some helpful coping strategies.

  1. If possible, go out only during the coolest hours—early morning and early evening. 
  2. Don’t go in the direct sun.  Period.  But if you absolutely have to, and even if you’re in the shade but it’s hot anyway, wear cooling scarves around your neck and both wrists.  Keep a mini-cooler filled with ice water close by.  Dunk the scarves and wristbands in it periodically to maintain their cool temperature.  
  3. Consider wearing a cooling vest.  There are many models available—Google “cooling vests” and thousands of websites will come up.  Some vests are more practical than others, and you’re bound to find something that works for you.
  4. Water, water and more water.  And then drink some more water.  Drinks with electrolytes, such as Gatorade, can help prevent heat prostration.  Of course, avoid alcohol.
  5. If you have to be in the heat, move about as little as possible.  Keep dogs walks, for example, shorter (if you must, make them more frequent to compensate).  The heat is no better for your dog than for you.  And, avoid crowds that can overwhelm while you’re trying to cope.
  6. It’s common sense—park your car in the shade whenever possible.  Empty your car of valuables and leave the windows down when you park so that the temperature inside the car isn’t 10-20 degrees higher than the outside when you return.  If you’re driving, you don’t want to be dealing with the effects of the heat while you’re behind the wheel.  Blast the air conditioning on yourself!
  7. Tell friends and family what you will need from them if the heat starts affecting you.  Your ability to communicate may be compromised once you’re in the heat, so they should know upfront to get you into the air conditioning as quickly as possible, to help you sit down, to put a cool cloth to your face, neck and wrists, to get you something cool to drink.  If, like me, you experience heat very much like low blood sugar, a Coke or orange juice along with some light protein can provide quick relief.  Avoid a big meal until you’re fully back to normal.
  8. Have a Plan B.  If you’re doing the tourist thing in Savannah, work out with your companions in advance what to do if the heat starts affecting you.  Are there places along the way you can go for cool relief if they want to continue on?  Should someone stay with you?  (Highly recommended, if not required!)  Where will you meet up later?
  9. As noted above, heat can have a cognitive effect, and make speech difficult.  Have a medical ID card on you that says, among other things, heat can affect you and that you need to be taken to a cool place.  Make sure there is a contact number for someone who can come and get you if necessary. 
  10. Acquaint yourself with the world of activity inside your home.  Spend time with friends and family, read a book, spend time at the computer, watch a movie, stretch with an exercise DVD, try a new recipe. If you’re not up to activity, then sleep.  Heat depletes us, and sleep can help.  If you work outside the home, you may want to put in some extra time just to be able to stay inside during the height of the day!
  11. Drink some more. 

Many online resources are waiting with more suggestions as to how to get the most from your summer while protecting yourself from the heat.  So get out of the heat and onto your computer, and do a search for “MS and heat”!

How does heat affect you?  And what advice do you have for coping?  Share your experiences by commenting below.

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