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What You Need To Know About MS and Vaccines

Most routine vaccines are safe for people living with multiple sclerosis — but be sure to talk with your care team about your needs

Healthcare provider apply bandaid on patient's arm after a shot

You might remember those doctor’s appointments from your childhood.

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In hindsight, you now know that you walked out with something much more valuable than a sticker and a superhero bandage. Those appointments were some of the most critical to your long-term health. Because they’re when you got vaccinated against a slew of diseases that could cause lasting damage.

Vaccines remain an important part of adulthood. And when you’re living with multiple sclerosis (MS), it’s even more critical to keep up with vaccines. Because vaccinations can protect you from illnesses that can be dangerous to people with MS.

“Staying up-to-date with vaccines is important when you’re living with MS because your condition can make it harder to recover from infection,” says neurologist and MS specialist Robert Bermel, MD. “I always encourage people with MS to take steps to lower their risk of contracting illnesses when possible.”

What vaccines are safe for people with MS? Let’s take a look.

Are vaccines safe when you have MS?

Nearly all vaccines that are offered in routine medical care are safe for patients with MS.

“There is really no thought or evidence that vaccines worsen MS, but sometimes, we need to be careful giving certain types of vaccines if a patient with MS is on a certain type of immune medication,” Dr. Bermel clarifies.

Inactivated vaccines — the kind that don’t use live viruses — are the most common kind of vaccine and are considered safe (and important) for people with MS. That includes people taking disease-modifying therapies (DMTs).

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Some medications may reduce the effectiveness of vaccines. That’s particularly true of some of the MS disease-modifying therapy medications, including some given by infusion and some taken by mouth. So, you may be better off getting vaccines before starting certain therapies.

Talk with your MS provider before getting any vaccines. And be sure your provider is aware of any medications you’re taking or therapies you’re undergoing, as they may affect your recommended vaccine schedule.

With those basic guidelines in mind, Dr. Bermel walks us through some common vaccines and recommendations for people with MS.

Flu vaccine

Getting an annual flu vaccine is the absolute best way to protect yourself from getting the flu. And when you’re living with MS, getting a viral illness like the flu can be especially serious, as it can make MS symptoms worse and make it harder to recover from the flu.

Flu vaccines can come in both live and inactivated varieties. The live vaccine is given as a nasal spray. Flu vaccines given as injections contain inactivated viruses. Dr. Bermel says the flu shot is the safer choice for people living with MS than the spray.

Plan to get your flu shot prior to each respiratory illness season. That’s around October in the Northern Hemisphere and March in the Southern Hemisphere.

COVID-19 vaccine

Current research suggests that most people with MS are no more at risk for severe COVID-19 infections than others. But that also means you’re not at a lower risk. And anytime someone with MS contracts a respiratory illness, it can cause a worsening of their symptoms.

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So, staying current with COVID-19 vaccines is important to protect yourself from a severe case of COVID-19.

Review these guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to determine if you’re due for a COVID-19 vaccine.

RSV vaccine

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a highly contagious lung infection that can cause severe complications in babies, older adults and people with compromised immune systems. If you have a lowered immunity due to MS treatments or other reasons, your provider may recommend the RSV vaccine, particularly if you’re over the age of 60.

Shingles vaccine

Two doses of the shingles vaccine are typically recommended for adults over the age of 50 and people over the age of 19 who have a weakened immune system. It hasn’t been studied specifically on people with MS. But other research hasn’t shown it to cause a higher risk for people with other autoimmune conditions.

Pneumonia vaccine

Vaccinations against pneumonia are inactivated vaccines and are considered safe for people with MS. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society suggests they should be considered for people with MS who are most at risk for pneumonia. That includes people who have compromised lung function, people who use a wheelchair full-time and people who are bed-bound.

Overseas travel vaccines

The CDC recommends specific vaccines for people visiting some overseas destinations. Those can include vaccines for illnesses like:

  • Yellow fever.
  • Typhoid.
  • Rabies.
  • Cholera.

If you’ll be visiting parts of the world with specific vaccination recommendations, talk with your MS team and your travel clinic to come up with the right plan for you.

Vaccines are important to maintaining your well-being when you’re living with MS. But it’s also important to know that some vaccines may not be right for you. Others may need to be scheduled around other treatments to be most effective. Talk with your MS team about what vaccines you would most benefit from.

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