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Need to Know: Why Do People Have Seasonal Temperature Sensitivity?

Need to Know: Why Do People Have Seasonal Temperature Sensitivity?

Editor’s note: “Need to Know” is a series inspired by common forum questions and comments from readers. Have a comment or question about MS? Visit our forum. This week’s question is inspired by the forum topic “Is it the summer or winter weather that impacts your MS the most?” from Oct. 6, 2018. Have an experience you want to share? Leave a comment below or at the original forum topic.

I live in a moderate climate. Summer in Seattle is typically dry and warm, though not like a furnace. (Shh, don’t tell anyone, it’s Seattle’s best-kept secret.) Winter is hit or miss with snow, and the deep freeze is more likely to be dark and gloomy. Oh, and yes, there’s rain! Spring and fall make transitions that are gradual and cooler than other parts of the country.

I didn’t always live here. For 12 years, I lived in Chicago. There’s nothing moderate about that climate: Chicago has steamy hot summers, frigid snowy winters, and brief passages of shoulder seasons in April and October.

I loved Chicago — except for the climate. That rising finger of Gulf Coast humidity just does me in when it reaches the Great Lakes. When it strikes, I’m hit with GI tract problems and profuse sweating. My gait and speech both become leaden, and cog fog and blurry vision take over.

But we all know MS is different for everyone. I know people with MS who absolutely cannot take cold, wintry weather. I have friends with MS who are thrilled by Arizona’s hot, dry summers and monsoons, and who couldn’t tolerate Seattle’s rain.

How and why do temperature extremes and relative humidity affect our MS symptoms?

Thermoregulation in MS

The body’s ability to regulate temperature is known as thermoregulation.

It’s one of those functions that we may simply take for granted. Sure, we sweat when we’re hot, we shiver when we’re cold, and we feel swings in temperature when we battle infection.

Thermoregulation is critical to homeostasis, the body’s ability to maintain a perfect balance across all systems for optimal health.

We are endotherms, which means that we use internal temperature maintenance to achieve a more or less consistent body temperature, even when external environmental shifts occur.

Even our internal influences (the immune system and circadian rhythm, for example) seek to snap back to default when they stray from the normal range, which hovers around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius).

It’s considered normal, even healthy, to undergo minor changes in body temperature in response to internal or external influences, such as a fever or changing outside temperatures.

How the body achieves thermoregulation

Two organs chiefly manage core temperature. We “feel” and respond to changes in body temperature in the skin. Meanwhile, the hypothalamus serves as the master thermoregulator. This part of the brain manages body temperature through a complex relationship that involves adjustments in blood circulation, skin functioning, digestive system shifts, thyroid stimulation, and muscle responses such as shivering.

Thermoregulation relies on four body functions to work:

  • Evaporation: Sweating vaporizes body fluids into gases.
  • Radiation: The skin absorbs and radiates infrared heat waves.
  • Convection: The body warms the air closest to the skin.
  • Conduction: Body temperature transfers from the skin to objects of different temperatures.

For people with MS, a tiny shift can cause big symptoms

For healthy people, it’s easy to take thermoregulation for granted. But with MS, up to 80 percent of people experience disease-related temperature dysregulation.

This can include both overheating problems and sensitivity to extremes — humidity, heat, or cold — which can usher in unpleasant symptoms including blurry vision, Uhthoff’s syndrome, fatigue, balance problems, and deficits in memory and cognition.

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, not only do shifts in body temperature result in MS symptoms, but also “elevated temperature further impairs the ability of a demyelinated nerve to conduct electrical impulses.”

Fortunately, overheating is temporary. As UCLA neurology professor Barbara Giesser, MD, noted in Momentum magazine, “If you have an area of damage that’s functioning normally under normal conditions, it could get worse with heat. But those symptoms should disappear when your body temperature is cooled.”

What about humidity?

Sometimes, as the saying goes, it really isn’t the heat, but the humidity.

When moisture saturates warm air, the body works harder to naturally cool down, especially if you have MS. That’s because it’s harder for sweat to evaporate in order to cool the body.

People in cooler, damper climates (like here in Seattle) may feel poorly as a result.

It’s one of the reasons I live in layers and wear shorts for as much of the fall and spring as possible. It keeps my body temperature in check when I can’t escape the rain and its companion, humidity. I’m not sure how people manage anywhere else! How do you do it?


Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.

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    I live in Chicago and wear skirts and light blouses, and sandles as long as possible! I avoid sweaters and boots (unless there’s snow). My co-workers laugh at me when they see me in a sleeveless blouse and skirt in the middle of winter, but at least I’m not sweating!

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      I would be laughed at just like you, Karen. (Solidarity! LOL) When I lived in Chicago, you would never see me in a sweater until it got down to the zero-subzero range in January! I wore a sleeveless puffy vest until the weather dropped under 20. People thought I was crazy, too!

  2. My issue is completely different. I get very cold and can’t shake a chill for nothing in the world. This results in uncontrollable tremors in my hands and arms. I do have issues with the heat as well (fairly recent) it’s not near as bad as the pain caused by cooler temps.

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      It can certainly happen in either cases (hot or cold). We just seem to have broken thermostats. In fact, that is how I describe it to friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc!

  3. I live on Vancouver island BC..the weather here can get very hot in summer. Anything over 30c is hot for me ..I was shopping in a big box store and stayed to long and got to my car and fell..I did eventually get in my car but was exhausted..don’t get many of those days..and we don’t get much snow in the winter and when we do I try not to venture to far..and when the temp. drops I really feel the cold.. we do get a lot of rain but not as much this year..

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      Hi to my northern neighbor! We have enjoyed lots of sun up your way (Victoria), and have brought home sunburns too! I recall having a bit of a heat-related spell during one trip, so I spent a lot of time on a bench in downtown Victoria people watching or enjoying live music on the waterfront in the shade. I think it there’s one thing we become accomplished at, living with MS, is gauging our response to temperatures (hot or cold) and making quick decisions about our tolerance and activity levels… but often this only happens after we’ve had a bad experience. But at least we learn! Best wishes to you… Tamara

  4. Britnay Lunay says:

    I live in Indiana (Indianapolis, specifically) and the summers are the worst for me. I used to love how humid it got here when I was a kid, but now with MS, it turns me into a blubbering dingy. The transition from summer to winter (lately it seems like fall lasts 5 seconds) is always hardest on my exacerbations because the temp change is so rapid. I love the winter, though. It’s always easier to just add another layer of clothing if I get cold as apposed to the summer where decency dictates the wearing of clothing, even if you do feel like you’re going to boil alive in the pot that is an Indiana summer.

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      Hi Britnay, Indy can be very hot and humid. I’ve been there twice (Aug and Sept) and was so glad for air conditioning! That temperature change also does me in (I also have RA) and while the fall is usually a lovely time in the Seattle area, we went from summer to winter by the beginning of October this year, so unusual for here. I remember clearly how that transition felt for me, and it wasn’t good. You are right about layers… that is also what works for me, peeling them off, putting them back on… thanks for sharing your insights!

  5. Jocelyn Mustain says:

    Here in Southern California, it is dry and a perfect 70-80 degrees for much of the year (fall, winter & spring) but the punishing heat of summer’s 90-100 reminds me how troublesome even a bit of heat can be with MS. I keep an emergency fan on a necklace like strap in my purse, wear layers that can be removed, & have been known to pour half my water bottle down my shirt if I need extra cooling. Each year I consider getting a cooling vest, but not yet!

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      I love that you have a portable emergency fan and would totally recommend that to anyone living in these hot dry places! When we did a road trip to the Grand Canyon, we all had these and they were such a nice relief (with misters!). I’ve not done a cooling vest yet, but the cooling neckties have worked for me. It might be worth looking into! Thanks for sharing what works for you!

  6. Sherry says:

    I live in Vancouver…Seattle’s sister in climate.
    So I suffer from the coldness, my hands and feet do not get warm this time of year. I conclude without proof that it may be because both those extremities suffer from residual numbness. But this article could be the reason? Thanks

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      (waving north) Hi! I love Vancouver, we are overdue for a trip to Granville Island, one of my favorite places! I wouldn’t be surprised if you have MS and your coldness is related to residual numbness. I would ask about it with your neuro. I also have a touch of Raynaud disease in my foot, which may be related to MS (or not). I hope you find out for sure, it’s good to know and then you can take even better care of yourself. Best wishes!

  7. I live in South Dakota and our temperatures range from below 0°F in the winter to above 100°F in the summer. Both are too extreme for me! My body struggles in the spring and fall as we need to switch between air conditioning and heat within the same day and back again. I can’t handle the dramatic change in a short period of time like I used to.

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      Ugh, Lisa, I don’t know how you do it! Except that you likely never leave the house. The dramatic change is absolutely a miserable time in between seasons. I hope you have great AC and heating in your home!

  8. I live in Middle Georgia! Why you ask? Because I didn’t have MS when we moved here. My husband and I are thinking of moving to Portland, Oregon to be with our granddaughter. I am thinking it has to be lower humidity there. Today in Georgia it was 75%and I am miserable!
    Loved the article.

    • Tamara Sellman says:

      It’s not a dry climate, Teresa (plenty of rain and dampness in the fall and winter!) but the humidity is far less when compared to the South. I much prefer the PacNW, myself! Thanks for reading and for your comment!

  9. Amanda Bradham-Little says:

    Hi there! Loved your article! I’m a newbie (diagnosed almost 8 months ago). I’m curious if there’s any research or if anyone has experienced a return (or worsening) of symptoms during snow or rainstorms?

  10. Tamara Sellman says:

    Hi Amanda
    I’m guessing there probably *has been* research done on it, but I can also point to anecdotal stories from people in MS forums who talk about being very sensitive to cold and winter weather. I’m sure it’s a “thing.”
    Best of luck on your new MS journey…

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