An ‘MS relapse’ is when a person diagnosed with relapsing forms of MS experience the sudden deterioration or worsening of current symptoms or the development of new symptoms. Those with progressive types of MS will usually experience a more gradual worsening. A relapse is also sometimes referred to as an episode, attack, or exacerbation. A relapse does not mean permanent damage, most people will return to their pre-relapse condition following a period of recovery.  However relapses can be scary and it can be difficult to know how to manage these symptoms and when to seek help. Using the below will help you choose the right path forward.


To be considered a new relapse:

  • it must last for at least 24 hours but more commonly for a number of weeks (However, under the current PHARMAC Special Authority Criteria for treatments a relapse to qualify must last for a minimum of 7 days)
  • it must occur at least 30 days after the start of a previous relapse
  • there must be no other explanation for the onset of symptoms such as an infection or a rise in body temperature


If you suspect you may be having a relapse, you should contact your GP or MS Nurse. It is important to do this, even if you don’t think you need any additional treatment, as it helps to build up a picture of how active your MS is and affects future decisions about disease modifying treatments. If you are concerned about your relapse and unable to see your primary health care providers you should visit your local emergency department.


Not all relapses need treatment, symptoms will generally improve on their own. If the symptoms of your relapse are causing significant problems you may require a short course of high dose steroids. Steroids may help you recover more quickly from the relapse but won’t affect how well you recover or the long-term course of your MS.


You may wish to talk to your Neurologist about your eligibility for Disease Modifying Treatments which can help to reduce the frequency, severity and disability progression resulting from relapses.

MS relapse recognition guide pdf IJMSC

Acknowledgement: Fiona d’Young & colleagues Auckland District Health Board




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