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Multiple sclerosis flares are episodes in which the patient's symptoms are far more intense. A flare is also referred to as an attack, exacerbation or a relapse. Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disorder that affects the neurological system and it is incurable. Flares are often acute and followed by a period of remission. Remission can last months to years before another flare occurs.
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An MS flare can cause older symptoms to reappear or new symptoms to crop up. For it to be a true flare, it must last for a minimum of 24 hours and occur a minimum of 30 days after the most recent flare. An MS flare tends to come on over the course of several days.
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Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms a patient experiences will depend on the patient. However, certain signs and symptoms are relatively common and are experienced by the majority of patients. These include severe fatigue, numbness and tingling in the extremities, weakness and balance problems, sensory problems, vision problems (such as blurry vision or eye pain) and bowel and bladder problems. A patient may experience one, none or several of these during a flare. He or she may also experience signs and symptoms different from those listed above.
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Causes of a Flare
The exact cause is usually difficult to determine. In some cases, an infection may trigger a multiple sclerosis flare. While controversial, some believe that stress can trigger a flare.
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Some flares may last a few days and some a few weeks. The patient's response to treatment often determines the duration. In some cases, treatment is not necessary, such as during cases of pseudoexacerbation, which is not a “true flare”. These are generally caused by body temperature increases and go away once body temperature returns to normal.
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There is no absolute way to prevent MS flares. However, if a patient can avoid all of the possible triggers, he or she can help in preventing a flare. Infections are linked to triggering flares so avoiding those who are contagious, getting a flu shot every year and frequent hand washing can be incredibly beneficial in preventing an infection and a possible subsequent flare. To help prevent urinary tract infections, a daily glass of cranberry juice can often be helpful.
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Flare Treatment and Recovery
Steroid medications are used to treat flares because they work to suppress the immune system. After a flare, some patients will need help from a speech, physical or occupational therapist to fully recover. Some patients will make a full recovery on their own, but the recovery may only be partial because only some patients make a complete recovery.
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Lazoff, M. MD. (2010). Multiple Sclerosis. Retrieved on March 29, 2011 from eMedicine: http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/793013-overview
Mayo Clinic. (2010). Multiple Sclerosis. Retrieved on March 29, 2011 from the Mayo Clinic: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/multiple-sclerosis/DS00188