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MS DMTs and Washout Periods: 8 Facts To Know

Written by Maureen McNulty
Updated on February 20, 2024

  • If you have multiple sclerosis (MS) and want to switch treatments, you may need to wait for one disease-modifying therapy (DMT) to clear out of your system before you start another.
  • This “wash-out period” may be a different length of time depending on which DMT you were taking, which DMT you’re switching to, and your health factors.
  • Your doctor can help you figure out whether you need to go through a wash-out period and how long it should last.

Changing treatments is quite common for people with MS. Many switch their medications, known as DMTs, at least once, if not several times, as they search for what works best for them. You might consider switching from one DMT to another for several reasons. Perhaps you’re experiencing side effects from your current DMT that disrupt your quality of life, or maybe you continue to have relapses even after taking it for several months.

If you’re considering switching to a new medication, your doctor may recommend a “wash-out period” — that is, a designated period of time between stopping your current treatment and starting a new one.

Wash-out periods come with risks and benefits. Continue reading to learn about eight facts to consider when planning for a wash-out period between MS DMTs.

1. Wash-Out Periods for MS DMTs Are Common

If you’re living with MS, you’ll likely consider undergoing a medication change at some point.

In a 2021 study of more than 110,000 people with MS who’d tried nearly 270,000 DMTs, researchers found that, about 68.2 percent of the time, participants discontinued new treatments within two years of starting them.

You might stop taking a DMT if:

  • It’s not effective enough at controlling your MS.
  • Your disability gets worse while using the drug.
  • You continue to experience MS relapses while taking the DMT.
  • You have too many side effects.
  • You’re allergic to the drug.
  • You have a hard time sticking to the medication’s schedule or using it as directed.
  • Your body starts rejecting the medication.
  • You can’t afford the medication.
  • You don’t need the medication — for example, in patients 70 years of age or older, with no evidence of acute disease (sudden illness) for two years or longer.

In these situations, you and your doctor may decide you should stop taking your DMT, undergo a wash-out period, and then try a new DMT.

2. DMT Wash-Out Periods May Help Prevent Side Effects

While DMTs might be effective MS treatments, the side effects can be difficult to handle and certain DMTs, such as highly effective DMTs are sometimes associated with the risk of more severe side effects. The main purpose of a wash-out period is to help you avoid experiencing unpleasant side effects from multiple medications at once.

The main purpose of a wash-out period is to help you avoid side effects ​from multiple medications at once.

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DMTs may stay in your system for a little while before they are fully cleared away, so if you take one DMT one day and a different DMT the next, both medications may still be in your body at the same time. This could cause the drugs to interact or create worse side effects than usual.

3. DMT Wash-Out Periods Might Include an Increased Risk of Flares

A major downside of going through a wash-out period is that your MS may not be completely under control and may flare up. For people with relapsing forms of MS including relapsing-remitting MS, clinically isolated syndrome, and active secondary progressive MS, flares are periods of new or worsening symptoms.

Your doctor may recommend regular follow-up testing during a wash-out period to look for early signs of flares. They may measure your levels of lymphocytes (white blood cells) or use an MRI to look for lesions (areas of your nervous system that show damage).

If you experience flares during a wash-out period, you may be able to take other medications such as intravenous (through a vein) steroids. These other treatments may help control symptoms until your new DMT takes effect.

Once you start taking a new DMT after a wash-out period, it will take some time for the new drug to start fully working. You won’t know how effective the new treatment is until three to six months after you start using it.

4. Different DMTs Require Different Wash-Out Periods

In many cases, researchers have not conducted clinical trials to specifically calculate how long a wash-out period should be. However, health experts have shared general guidelines for different DMTs based on how these medications affect the body:

  • Glatiramer acetate (Copaxone), rituximab (Rituxan), or interferons — Often, no wash-out period required
  • Fingolimod (Gilenya) or siponimod (Mayzent) — No wash-out period, or a wash-out period of a few weeks if your blood sugar levels are low
  • Dimethyl fumarate (Tecfidera) — No wash-out period unless you have lymphopenia (low levels of lymphocytes)
  • Natalizumab (Tysabri) — One to three months
  • Ocrelizumab (Ocrevus) — Zero to three months
  • Mitoxantrone (Novantrone) — Three to six months
  • Cladribine (Mavenclad) or alemtuzumab (Lemtrada) — Wash-out period lasts until you have active disease (signs of MS reappear)

    The length of a wash-out period may differ depending on the DMTs youre switching from and to and your personal health details.

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    For medications that work by binding to the cell receptor CD20, such as ofatumumab (Kesimpta), some doctors recommend skipping a wash-out period. Minimizing the time between discontinuation of the older drug and starting the newer drug may help prevent MS from becoming more active.

    Medications like teriflunomide (Aubagio) may take up to two years to be cleared out of your body. However, your doctor may speed up this process by prescribing medications such as cholestyramine (Prevalite) or activated charcoal for 11 days.

    Your doctor may recommend a longer or shorter wash-out period based on your health details and their experience and knowledge about a specific DMT.

    5. DMT Wash-Out Periods Can Vary From Person to Person

    Several other factors can also help determine how long your wash-out period is.

    When deciding on the length of your wash-out period, your doctor may also consider how active your MS is, your other health conditions, and your reason for switching DMTs.

    Work with your doctor to weigh the risks and benefits of different wash-out period lengths. Only your doctor — who understands your values and health factors — can help you decide how to approach a wash-out period.

    6. Your Doctor May Suggest Tapering the DMT

    Most of the research and guidelines surrounding wash-out periods for MS DMTs assume that people will stop taking a DMT all at once. However, some doctors may suggest that you taper off a drug by gradually decreasing your dose over time.

    Your doctor can advise you on whether it’s better to stop your current DMT all at once or taper off gradually.

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    One study among people with MS on natalizumab treatment found that those who tapered off the DMT were less likely to experience a disease flare. Some health experts also suggest tapering off fingolimod. However, researchers haven’t studied tapering before a wash-out period for most DMTs, so it’s unclear whether this strategy may help reduce relapse rates or lead to a higher risk of flares.

    7. There Are Other Situations When You May Need Wash-Out Periods

    You may also need to undergo a wash-out period if you want to become pregnant. There haven’t been many studies about whether certain DMTs are safe to use during pregnancy or whether they can harm a developing baby. Therefore, health experts usually recommend that those who want to get pregnant go through a wash-out period before they conceive.

    How long the wash-out period should last depends on the DMT, although your doctor may also make other recommendations. Some recommended guidelines state:

    • Interferon beta — Can be used throughout pregnancy
    • Interferon, glatiramer acetate, natalizumab — No wash-out period needed; use up until you find out you are pregnant
    • Teriflunomide — Stop using two to four months before you plan to get pregnant
    • Dimethyl fumarate and fingolimod — Go through a two-month wash-out period before pregnancy
    • Alemtuzumab — Avoid this medication four months before you want to become pregnant

    In some cases, your doctor may also suggest a wash-out period if you need to undergo treatment for a different health condition. Talk to your neurologist if you’re not sure whether you should discontinue your DMT.

    8. Don’t Change Your Medication Without Talking to Your Doctor

    Make sure to take your DMTs as directed. Skipping medication, decreasing your doses, or taking your medication in ways not directed by your doctor can make your MS worse.

    If you’re not happy with your DMT for any reason, talk to your health care team. There are many approved DMTs for MS, and your neurologist can help you switch to a different treatment option that works better for you. Your doctor can also help recommend a wash-out period that will keep you safe while minimizing your risk of MS flares.

    Talk With Others Who Understand

    MyMSTeam is the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 207,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with multiple sclerosis.

    Have you gone through a wash-out period? What was your experience? Share in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

    Updated on February 20, 2024
    All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.

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    Luc Jasmin, M.D., Ph.D., FRCS (C), FACS is a board-certified neurosurgery specialist. Learn more about him here
    Maureen McNulty studied molecular genetics and English at Ohio State University. Learn more about her here

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