Multiple Sclerosis Exacerbation Due to Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)

Author: V. Dimov, M.D.
Reviewer: S. Randhawa, M.D.

A 35-year-old African American female (AAF) with a past medical history (PMH) of mutliple sclerosis (MS) is admitted with a chief complaint of generalized weakness and inability to walk. At baseline, she is able to transfer independently from a bed to a chair and to walk with assistance. Her PMH is positive for urinary incontinence and frequent urinary tract infections (UTIs) that lead to MS flares. The current complaints are typical of her MS flares.

She also complains of (c/o) nausea and has vomited in the emergency room (ER). She reports no abdominal pain or dysuria.

Past medical history (PMH)

Multiple Sclerosis (MS), treated with methylprednisolone IV (IVMP) every 2 months, each course consists of Solu-Medrol 1 gm over 30 min for 3 days. UTIs, urinary incontinence, presenile dementia, hypercholesterolemia.


Detrol (tolterodine), multivatimin (MVT).

Physical examination

VS 38.2-95-128/80-18 SpO2 98% on RA.
HEENT: dry MM, no nuchal rigidity.
Chest: CTA (B).
CVS: Clear S1S2.
Abdomen: Soft, NT, ND, +BS, wears a diaper.
Ext: no c/c/e.
Neuro: AAO x 3.
Strength 5/5 (B) UE, 0/5 RLE, 1/5 LLE, her baseline strength is 2/5 RLE, 4/5 LLE.
Sensation is intact, DTR are increased, and there is spasticity.

What is the most likely diagnosis?

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Exacerbation.

What is the reason for the MS flare in this patient?

It could be any infection, e.g. UTI or URTI. If it is summer, and there is no air conditioning in the patient's room, hot weather may be the reason for the MS flare.

What laboratory tests would you recommend?

Urinalysis (UA)
Blood cultures (BC) x 2
Chest X-ray (CXR)

What happened?

The urinalysis (UA) showed evidence of UTI.
The white blood cell count (WBC) was elevated to 18.2 with 75% PMN.
The basic metabolic panel (BMP) was within normal limits (WNL).

Ciprofloxacin 500 mg IV q 12 hr was started, along with NS at 150/hr for 2 L.

A neurology consult was called, and she recommended treating the UTI first, then reevaluating the patient to see if she needs IVMP.

The MRI showed chronic lesions of MS.

What happened next?

Solu-Medrol was started at 1000 mg IV q 24 hr x 3. The patient's condition improved significantly on the second day of IVMP treatment, with the recovery of her motor function to baseline, 4/5 LLE. She was discharged home with a prednisone taper, 40 mg PO qd x 5 d, 30 mg PO qd x 5 d, 20 mg PO qd x 5 d, then stop.

Final diagnosis

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) exacerbation due to UTI.

What did we learn from this case?

Infections are a common reason for MS exacerbations. It is generally advisable to consult a neurologist early. Typically, MS patients are followed closely by their neurologist, and it is important to compare the current neurological complaints to their baseline status. Always ask if this attack is typical of their MS flares.

Consider interferon treatment, if recommended by the neurology consult.


Multiple Sclerosis. Merck Manual.
Multiple Sclerosis. The Cleveland Clinic.
UTIs May Trigger Relapse in Multiple Sclerosis. Journal of Urology, 1999.
Role of bacterial infection in exacerbation of multiple sclerosis. Am J Phys Med Rehabil, 1995.

Related reading

People with MS: Comedian Richard Pryor dies at 65. CNN, 12/05.
Anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody ocrelizumab helps patients with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (MS) (Lancet, 2011).
Patient Voices: Multiple Sclerosis - Interactive Feature - NYTimes, 2011.

Multiple Sclerosis Overview - Mayo Clinic YouTube

Published: 02/20/2006
Updated: 08/30/2013


  1. Thank you very much for this nice article.
    What can we learn from this:
    1-Is it a TRUE exacerbation? or
    2-Is a Pseudo-exacerbation(Unthoff's phenomenon)due to UTI?
    Pseudo-exacerbations are very common in Ms patients (especially when advanced), and usually wrongly diagnosed as true flare up. We dont know the type of MS she RRMS,PPMS...etc. The profound improvement of this davastating weakness after 1-2 days is more likely related to her UTI-induced pseudoexacerbation which was treated correctly. Besides, the MRI was done for what area(brain, cord)??, any how , it did not reveal any active lesion.
    I think it is a Unthoff's pnenomenon (or syndrome) rather than a true flare up.
    thank you

  2. Hakim Raghig:
    I agree .This is not a relapse.Relapse by definition would last at least 24 hours and you need at least one month as a time frame in between two different episodes.
    You will also need dissemination in space and time according to Macdonald's criteria.

  3. To correct the comment on this case,
    It is Schuber and Poser criteria that insist on dissemination in time and space.
    McDonald (not MacDonald) criteria came out in 2001 and revised in 2005 has criteria for 1 attack, 1 lesion based on MRI.

    Does the 35 yo in this case really have PMH of presenile it iatrogenic (steroids)?
    Consider adding more on latest treatments...

  4. Thanks for correcting my spelling PGY3.
    Who is Schuber ? Did you mean Schumacher ? Please let me know if there something called Schuber criteria that I am not aware of. Do you understand what is the meaning of dissemination in space and time? because based on your comment I do not think that you understand.You have to review the MacDonald criteria very carefully .What I was trying to say and may be I did not make it clear is If this patient carries a query diagnosis of MS,then that needs to be confirmed by this recent criteria.In case the diagnosis was really made according to this criteia , then we do not apply it on patients when they come with ? relapse.Just to remind you again that dissemination in space and time are the intergral part of McDnold criteria and I disagree with all of what you have said.Finally , how would 35 year old female get a presenile dementia? How common is that? and if that is the case do you have an evidenec that steroid on short term use may worsen the dementia?

  5. Dear Hakim and PGY3

    McDonald criteria insists on dissemination intime and space in case of only one relapse. Both McDonald and Poser Criteria are useful for Diagnosis and has nothing to do with the diagnosis of remittance.

    Dr. Eissa

  6. Am I the only one that finds it extremely interesting that a UTI esulted in a worsening of MS? Clearly that alone points to an infectious aetiology in the disease

  7. MS is not cause by UTI. Any intercurrent disease can exacerbate MS.

  8. I am not a physician- I hope it is ok for me to post this here. I am very concern for my brother health and need help!! My brother has had MS for 15 years but has been able to get around just fine. A few days ago he had a sever prostate infection which paralized him completely as he could not move his legs and very limited use of his hand. Dr. put him on anti-biotics and he is improving now. Can someone tell me if you have seen such a case and what can he do? Does this mean his MS will become progressive. I appreciate any help. I can have the discussion outside this site if it is more appropriate. Thank you!

    1. Have been off work with a frozen shoulder for nearly a month and I too started having trouble walking and lost use in right hand about 4 days ago. My MS nurse sent me for a dip urine test at the doctors where they found protein in my urine so they've put me on antibiotics and this should improve things according to other info on the internet.Realise this is a late post but just hope it helps others who may have problems