Can’t Take the Heat? Tips for Dealing with Uhthoff’s Phenomenon

As we move into spring and summer, everyone seems to relish the longer days and warmer temps; everyone, that is, except me. While sun-seekers head to the beach, park or any hot spot, I’ll be packing my bags for colder climates.

The reason? Uhthoff’s Phenomenon.

Wilhelm Uhthoff first defined the connection between worsening MS symptoms and heat in 1890. This was further confirmed by a 2011 Swedish study which found 60 to 80 percent of people living with MS report experiencing heat sensitivity. This sensitivity is largely due to demyelinated fibers in the central nervous system which have become hypersensitive to body temperature.

Along with this sensitivity comes blurry vision and other disabling symptoms such as fatigue, pain, difficulty concentrating and urgency to urinate.

Thankfully, the effect of heat sensitivity is only temporary, meaning people with MS don’t have to stay indoors forever. Because of its temporary effect, Uhthoff is referred to as pseudo-exacerbation. In other words, you may think you are having a relapse, but no additional neurological damage occurs.

In my case, Uhthoff’s is not just a phenomenon, it is also a paradox. My body sometimes refuses to warm up, so I resort to hot showers. But after a short while, I need to climb out of the shower, because it triggers my heat sensitivity. I become weak all over, am forced to lie down, and have strong tremors in my head and limbs.

So now it’s probably easy to see why I dislike temperatures higher than 22ºC (73ºF). Even in the winter I sleep with my bedroom windows open, just to catch as much cool and fresh air as possible!

After many years of dealing with Uhthoff’s Phenomenon, I have compiled some great tips and tricks for handling warm temperatures and sun exposure. Because of the value of Vitamin D intake and MS, enjoy those warm days when you can, but limit lengthy exposure (and be sure to wear your sunscreen!) if you are one of the many people with MS who experience Uhthoff’s Phenomenon.

Outdoors vs. Indoors

• Stay away from saunas, hot tubs and long, hot showers. Seek out swimming pools with cool water, and moderate your shower temperature!

• Looking to get out of the house but want to stay cool? Spend some time at the movies or a shopping centre, where the air conditioning is sure to be on full blast.

• At home, use free-standing fans or have fixed fans installed. Fans can make a big difference, especially when you are trying to sleep on those warm summer nights.

Clothing

• Not sure what the temperature will be like? Dress in layers. When you start to get too warm, you will be thankful to have something on underneath your sweater.

• Try light-coloured clothing. Studies show this can help regulate body temperature and can prevent heat stroke.

Food

• Avoid ice cream. While there is nothing more tempting than cooling down with ice cream on hot summer’s day, the effect is fleeting, as calorie-rich foods increase your body temperature once the cool feeling has worn off.

• For a healthy and tasty cool-down treat, make homemade frozen treats using blended fruits, 100% fruit juice, and yoghurt.

• Stick with water. Just as with high-calorie food, sugar-laden, caloric drinks will not help you when the temperature rises. In particular, avoid alcohol and caffeine, as their diuretic effects will dehydrate you and make it harder for your body to keep cool.

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