Should you get vaccinated if you have multiple sclerosis? Experts debunk common myths and provide the facts you need.
Epidemiologists are still learning about the nuances of COVID-19 and the vaccines, and some people with multiple sclerosis (MS) may hear conflicting recommendations about getting a vaccine.
For example, you may have been told that no one with MS was part of clinical trials, so that means side effects are unknown. Or, you may hear that if you’re immunocompromised and the vaccine causes a strong immune response, it could put you at risk.
You might have other chronic conditions that should either cause you to avoid vaccination in the near-term, or, conversely, get you to the head of the line.
What’s the truth? An epidemiologist and MS specialist offer insights on the three key points you need to know.
While it’s true that vaccine trials didn’t study MS participants specifically, that doesn’t mean the vaccine will be unsafe for you, says Sri Banerjee, MD, an epidemiologist and professor of public health at Walden University.
Several members of his family have MS, and he’s heard concerns about vaccinations from them and from his patients.
“This is often the biggest point of controversy, that people with MS think there are too many unknowns because of the lack of MS patients in the clinical trial,” he says. “However, that doesn’t mean the issue hasn’t been examined by experts.”
Most notably, the National MS Society gathered a group of researchers and medical professionals to review the available science and make evidence-based recommendations, which you can find on the organization’s website.
Using knowledge from studies of other vaccines administered to people with MS, as well as data about the current COVID-19 vaccines, the National MS Society determined that people with MS should be vaccinated against COVID-19. They also decided that the vaccines being given are safe and effective.
In terms of known side effects, the vaccine may cause a fever, and that may make your MS symptoms worse. However, that’s considered a temporary side effect and should subside within a few days, if not sooner.
On its own, MS places you in a high-risk category that should warrant getting a vaccine when available.
Furthermore, the National MS Society notes that some individuals are in a higher risk group: those who have progressive forms of MS, are older, have a higher level of physical disability, or are Black or Hispanic. These people should take the vaccine as soon as it’s available to them.
That’s because these factors have already shown, through research, to be associated with severe symptoms if you develop COVID-19.
The same is true if you have certain other chronic conditions in addition to your MS — also called comorbidities — according to the
- kidney disease
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Down syndrome
- heart conditions
- sickle cell disease
- type 2 diabetes
Smoking and pregnancy are also a concern for severe COVID-19 symptoms, the CDC adds.
“The higher your risk, the sooner you should be vaccinated,” says Banerjee.
“The question with any vaccination is what advantage you have by getting vaccinated now, compared to later,” he says. “For some people, waiting longer won’t have a significant effect and won’t raise their risk. But for those with MS, particularly with comorbidities, the longer they wait, the more of a gamble they’re taking.”
Another important point: If you’ve already had COVID-19, that shouldn’t change your vaccination plans.
Many people with MS are on disease modifying therapies, known as DMTs, that affect immune system regulation.
These therapies work by tamping down the immune system so it doesn’t begin attacking the body’s own cells, says Barbara Giesser, MD, a neurologist and MS specialist at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute.
For this reason, some people with MS may be at increased risk for becoming sick from the virus that causes COVID-19, she says.
Research on previous vaccines also suggests there may be a diminished response to the COVID-19 vaccine, Geisser adds.
“Even if that happens, keep in mind we’re talking about vaccines that are 95 percent effective,” she says. “Even if you reduce the effectiveness by 20 or even 30 percent, that’s still much better than not getting the vaccine — which has zero effectiveness.”
Concern about the DMT effect has caused some patients to wonder if they should temporarily stop their therapy as a way to “improve” the vaccine response, adds Banerjee. But he says that’s a dangerous tactic.
“Stopping DMT suddenly can cause a significant risk of disability and new lesions,” he says. “A better approach is to talk with your health provider and time your DMT with the vaccine, so you get the effectiveness of both.”
The biggest advice from experts? Talk with your healthcare team about your specific situation.
Although recommendations for people with MS might apply to you, it’s worth talking through any concerns, especially if you’ve had severe allergic reactions to vaccines in the past, Geisser says.
Most of all, even after you’re vaccinated, continue to take precautions: wear a mask, avoid gatherings, and wash your hands.
Elizabeth Millard lives in Minnesota with her partner, Karla, and their menagerie of farm animals. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including SELF, Everyday Health, HealthCentral, Runner’s World, Prevention, Livestrong, Medscape, and many others. You can find her and way too many cat photos on her Instagram.