It’s hard to explain to people how infections are related to Multiple Sclerosis, since MS doesn’t technically cause infection. But I’ll give it a try!
Think, for a moment, about sinus infections. Most people can relate to the congestion, the headache, the face pain. But it makes no sense to most people that when I have a sinus infection, I’m liable to have tingling in my foot or an achy leg. How could that possibly be related to my sinuses?!
Well, when anyone’s body gets an infection, their immune system kicks in to fight it. Just like when Pac-Man has to chase down and chomp up the ghosts in the video game, your immune cells seek out infection and attack and remove it, to keep it from harming your body.
Unfortunately, Multiple Sclerosis is a disease where your body misidentifies actual good cells — those that make up the protective myelin sheath that covers all your nerves — for bad cells, and sends your immune cells out to chomp that myelin right off the nerves. The worst part? For a person who has MS, every time the immune response is turned on to attack another infection in the body, it turns on to attack the myelin again, as well. So every infection is a double whammy of the expected symptoms of that illness and a flare-up of MS symptoms, too.
I’m especially cursed by this phenomenon, because I have damage to the nerves that lead to my bladder. I have trouble realizing that I have to pee, because the signals don’t reliably travel from bladder to brain, and I often have trouble peeing, because the signals don’t reliably travel from brain to bladder. This puts me at great risk of urinary tract infections, which can be caused by residual urine. And every UTI causes a worsening of MS symptoms, so it’s a vicious circle.
It’s frustrating. I don’t want to be a whiner, constantly going, “You don’t understand! Yes, I ‘only’ have a UTI or a cold or an infected paper cut, but it’s worse for me than it would be for you!” But it’s true, and it’s hard to make people understand that when I’m dealing with those things, I’m also getting slammed with extra-bad MS symptoms on top of it all.
(If we were in Notting Hill, I’d be going for that last brownie.)