A person scratches their head next to a set of lungs with pneumonia.

The Connection Between Pneumonia During Adolescence and MS

As someone who has almost lived longer with multiple sclerosis than without it, I rarely have given much thought to how I got this disease. To me, focusing on the cause always seemed like a slippery slope. With no way to go back in time and do anything different, figuring out what caused my case of MS would be an exercise in futility. I’ve always thought if I knew, it might drive me crazy thinking about the 'coulda, shoulda, and woulda's' of my past.

A study determining the link between pneumonia and MS

However, I do occasionally come across some piece of MS news that piques my interest with regard to my own case. That’s exactly what happened when I came across a study trying to determine if there was a correlation between being diagnosed with pneumonia during adolescence and subsequently contracting MS. This study jumped out at me, because, as you might have guessed, I was hospitalized with pneumonia in my teen years.

Triggering changes in the immune system

First of all, we still don’t know what causes MS. It’s thought that a number of factors can trigger it. No matter the cause, it often seems that many people experience some sort of shock to their system, an illness, or an accident, and then the body’s immune response is abnormal.1 Suddenly, the immune system isn’t only fighting foreign invaders, but also its own body, targeting the insulative lining around our nerves known as myelin. While I’ve never considered the cause, I have given thought to what event was the trigger in my case: when did my immune system really get going and refuse to stop after the foreign invader was gone?

Illnesses during my adolescence and young adulthood

I was diagnosed with MS after my freshman year in college; earlier that same year, I had had a bout of meningitis, so that was always something I considered. Prior to that, the last real illness I had was as a sophomore in high school, when I was hospitalized for a week with severe pneumonia. That illness always stuck out in my mind as well, and I’ve often wondered if that was the trigger or if it was in some other way involved with me later getting MS.

The lungs are important

While obviously not everyone with multiple sclerosis had pneumonia during adolescence, could it increase the risk for those who did? After all, we know that the lungs have already proven to be important when it comes to an increased MS risk. We know that those who smoke or have secondhand smoke exposure have a much greater risk of getting MS than those who don’t.2 We also know there is an increased risk of getting MS if someone’s lungs have been exposed to other irritants, like organic solvents.3 So, with higher risk already associated with lung-related exposures that cause inflammation, researchers developed a study to see if pneumonia could also increase the risk of getting multiple sclerosis.

Pneumonia as an increased risk

The study looked specifically at people who were diagnosed with pneumonia during adolescence (before the age of 20). Sure enough, they found that those who contracted pneumonia during their adolescent years were more likely to be diagnosed with multiple sclerosis later in life. While noting that more research must be done, they did come to this conclusion: “This study strengthens the increasing evidence of a critical period in adolescence for later development of MS and also that the lungs, and serious respiratory infections or other sources of pulmonary inflammation, may play a role in MS“.4

Could I have prevented myself from developing MS?

It would seem that the lungs are extremely important when we talk about an increased risk of developing MS. As for pneumonia, this study was extremely interesting for me to read because I fit into it so perfectly. I’m one case, but when not looking too deeply, I am exactly what they were looking to prove. I’m sure some in my position would be tempted to think, “If I only hadn’t gotten pneumonia, my life would be different,” or “If only I’d taken better care of myself.” At the time, I was burning the candle at both ends between school work, football, and the rest of my life; I definitely wore myself down a lot which I’m sure contributed to it. The thing is, me getting pneumonia at that point in my life may have increased my risk (just as genetics slightly increased it), but it’s still not the cause. I could have still gotten MS even if I didn’t have pneumonia. Chances are, nothing I could have changed would have prevented it.

I don't dwell on what caused my MS

At the end of the day, what is the takeaway? Don’t get pneumonia during adolescence? Well, no one is really trying to intentionally do that anyway. So, while all of this is very interesting, I don’t lose any sleep over possibly doing anything differently. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter anyway. I have MS and need to deal with it. If you have children, I guess I can say, protect their lungs, but again, I’d like to think you’d be doing that anyway.

Does anyone reading this have pneumonia or were exposed to any sort of lung irritants when younger? As always, I love to hear others' stories and perspectives in the comments below!

Thanks so much for reading and always feel free to share!

Devin

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