Living with Multiple Sclerosis: How to Avoid MS Holiday Hazards

Have fun, stay calm, enjoy yourself during the holidays

Overhead view friends toasting wine glasses patio table
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The holidays can be fairly stressful for people with multiple sclerosis (MS). You have to not only participate in hosting the festivities but  are also expected to behave in a consistently festive manner with people you encounter.

Finding Genuine Joy in Holiday Festivities

It is a happy season filled with family, friends and good times, but for the person who is struggling with or just identifying some of the MS symptoms, it can be a little more challenging. If you are not a natural social butterfly, this can be even worse.

At times, it is easy to fall into different approaches to the holidays with MS – avoidance, bitterness, and disdain for everything happening between mid-November and January 2nd. Rarely do these work in reducing holiday-related stress. They can also leave you feeling a little guilty and in need of an attitude adjustment (and the necessity to apologize to people that you may have inadvertently or purposely offended).

A New Strategy to Deal with Holiday Stress

One thing that can be done to help relieve holiday stress is to strategize in advance. If you realize the potential holiday pitfalls that affect your joy during this season, you can come up with ways to help yourself work through them at the moment.

  • Try not to strive to keep up with everyone.
  • Pick and choose what you will do, contribute and participate in.

Of course, no two people are the same and some people with MS may have no problems getting through the holidays. Others may find just a few of these points relatable and some may find the entire list applies to them.

The important part is to identify your stressful holiday moments and come up with an action plan that will make you happy.

Too Many People

A common MS symptom is cognitive dysfunction. This can impact life in many ways, but one of the most frustrating is with communication.

It can be difficult to keep up with a conversation when more than a couple of people are participating, especially if it is a party-type setting with unfamiliar people and widely varying topics. If you are a natural introvert and avoid small talk, this can be even more of a challenge.

Try to solve this potential problem by:

  • Avoiding parties where you don’t know many people.
  • Find quiet corners where you can have more intimate conversations.

Too Much Noise

Related to cognitive dysfunction is the inability to maintain any train of thought if there is too much ambient noise. This includes loud (or annoying) music, a television playing in the background (especially football games) or people cheering during football games, among other things.

Try to solve this potential problem by:

  • Moving to another room where there is less noise.
  • Excusing yourself for a moment to collect your thoughts and take a quiet moment to yourself.
  • Politely ask that the music's volume be turned down.

Infection Risk 

Cold and flu season coincides with the holiday season. It is not necessarily emotionally healthy to stay locked up in your house during this happy season and it can be awkward to wear protective masks.

However, people with MS are at risk for relapses if they happen to get a febrile illness like the flu. They are also at risk for complications from the flu, such as pneumonia, due to respiratory dysfunction and decreased lung function.

Try to solve this potential problem by:

  • Get vaccinated against both seasonal flu and H1N1.
  • Ask people in a roundabout way if they are all infection-free before visiting. Say things like, “Boy, it sure is a miracle that we are all healthy with so much crud going around this time of year, isn’t it?”

Losing Sleep

Everyone gets tired during the holidays. It can be worse for people with MS who pretty much live in a constant state of fatigue. The frantic pace of fitting in all the revelry can have a very negative effect.

Part of this has to do with sleep loss. We all know the pattern: go to bed a little later here, wake up to hit the sales or put the turkey in the oven the next day, can’t go to bed before Uncle Ted leaves, and so on… We end up with a sleep deficit that exacerbates our fatigue.

Try to solve this potential problem by:

  • Be as strict with bedtimes as possible and budget naps into your schedule.
  • Remain aware that you may not be able to go to every gathering or stay at parties for long.


There is a lot to do during the holidays and it can be stressful for anyone, even if they do not have MS. Many people try to stay calm and peaceful as much as possible and most of the time it works.

By planning ahead, much of that natural holiday stress can be relieved, or at least lessened. It may not relieve 100% of the holiday stress, but you can feel like you have more control.

Try to solve this potential problem by:

  • Shop for presents early, even try to complete your list before Thanksgiving.
  • Plan all menus far in advance.
  • Have a very specific schedule of what is going to happen when so you know what to expect.

Getting Too Cold or Hot

Many people with MS are sensitive to temperatures. When you get too hot, you can start losing function. Usually, this is a summertime problem, but you can also experience strange symptoms while standing over a hot stove or sitting too close to a hot fire.

Experts say that a rise of as little as one-half of a degree in one’s core temperature can bring on a pseudoexacerbation. Many people complain that their symptoms get worse in cold temperatures.

Try to solve this potential problem by:

  • Dress in layers so you can remove or add sweaters and other warm clothes when needed.
  • Don’t hesitate to use your disabled parking placard when you need to.

Eating Too Fast or While Talking

Swallowing problems, also known as dysphagia, are a pretty common problem for people with MS. Even if you have never been formally evaluated, you may have experienced uncomfortable moments of coughing when food went “down the wrong way.”

Try to solve this potential problem by:

  • Put effort into eating slowly.
  • Only talk when your mouth is completely empty.
  • Try to avoid eating or drinking when talking to people you know to be humorous. Laughing and trying to swallow can also be a very bad combination.

Trying to Do Too Much

Most people with MS battle with fatigue and often have to limit what they do. Holidays can be fun and exciting and make you want to push past feelings of fatigue in order to get one more present wrapped or attend one more party.

Schedules that would make other people feel a little tired the next day can bring people with MS to their knees with fatigue. While it is not recommended that social events get skipped or preparations go undone because you fear fatigue, something does often have to give.

Try to solve this potential problem by:

  • Let up a little on the housework in lieu of a holiday concert.
  • Delegate others to bring something to the meal, rather than doing it all yourself.
  • Do some of your shopping online and avoid busy stores and long lines.
  • Bring the frenzy down a notch and enjoy what the holidays have to offer instead of just adding a bunch of stuff into your existing schedule.

Skipping Meds, Exercise or Other Things that Keep Us Well

When the holidays get in full swing, things get overlooked. It is very easy to forget those things that might not be the most pleasant tasks but need to be done each day. 

It goes without saying that we need to keep up with personal “maintenance” during the holidays. Otherwise, you get the double (or triple) whammy of neglecting important health or medication tasks, compounded by all of the holiday-related health hazards.

Exercise also tends to get ignored or crossed off of to-do lists when everything else seems so pressing. 

Try to solve this potential problem by:

  • Stick to your daily schedule for medication and other health-related tasks.
  • Keep up with your exercise regiment or, at least, try to fit some exercise into each day.


Hmmm, let’s see… do we choose bran cereal with blueberries or Aunt Helen’s famous homemade cinnamon rolls for breakfast?

It is easy to indulge in the treats that are associated with the holidays. However, many people with MS are prone to constipation. Chocolate peppermint truffles and egg nog are not known for their fiber content. 

Try to solve this potential problem by:

  • Do yourself a favor and supplement with fiber or use a stool softener.
  • Stick with the eating plan that works for you and just take small samples of the goodies.


Depression is a very real symptom of MS. Depression also peaks around the holidays, probably as a result of stress, the seasonal effects of reduced sunlight and all sorts of other factors. 

Keep one simple rule in mind: 

  • If you have MS and feel very sad or have no interest in things around you, you need to seek help.
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