COVID ‘Brain Fog’ a Lasting Result After Catching COVID
Melanie Montano, a 32-year-old writer, and educator from New Jersey tested positive for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in March. About two weeks after COVID-19 symptoms started, Montano said she began experiencing “brain fog,” a condition that made it difficult for her to remember details and articulate thoughts.
Seven months later, Montano said she still has brain fog and feels as if she “exists in a haze-like frame of mind in which I’m constantly on autopilot.” She is also concerned about the troublesome symptom because she is applying for a job.
Montano is one of many COVID-19 survivors suffering from “brain fog,” a condition that affects cognitive functions, like thinking, remembering, and concentrating.
When the coronavirus first began spreading across the United States earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited “new confusion” as one of the COVID-19 symptoms to look for, especially in older adults with dementia. But more adults of all ages began experiencing confusion and memory loss after contracting the disease.
Lisa Mizelle, a 53-year-old nurse practitioner at an urgent care clinic, does not have dementia but says she feels as if she does. Mizelle said she had COVID-19 in July and continues to battle brain fog. What makes it scary is she forgets routine treatments and lab tests and has to ask her co-workers about terminology she once used without giving it a second thought.
As if that’s not enough, Mizelle said she cannot remember what a patient says after she leaves the room. Mizelle said she would take more time off from work but she used up all of her medical leave.
Researchers Studying Why Brain Fog Occurs
Brain fog is the focus of studies designed to help researchers understand what causes the condition and how to help people with the cognitive problem. The proportion of COVID survivors with cognitive symptoms is not known, but in some studies, the proportion could be up to 20 percent, said Dr. Michael Zandi, a consultant at UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology in London, England.
While people are calling it brain fog, “brain fog,” is not a medical term, said Dr. Ross Paterson, also from the UCL Queen Square Institute. What’s more, researchers are still trying to define the symptoms and determine whether they are “measurable,” he said.
Experiments in lab dishes suggest that the coronavirus can infect brain cells and choke off oxygen delivery to nearby cells, although this research has yet to be peer-reviewed, Zandi said. Zandi added that inflammation in the body or a lack of oxygen to the brain, particularly for COVID-19 patients who were on a ventilator, could be among the reasons why brain fog occurs.
Dr. Shruti Agnihotri, a neurologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said that even though patients recovered from the initial COVID-19 symptoms, such as shortness of breath and fever, they continue to have headaches and complain about memory loss.
Agnihotri noted that people who recovered from COVID-19 at home are having the same neurological symptoms as people who were hospitalized. Agnihotri said it’s possible that inflammation that is not detected in the spinal fluid may play a role in causing brain fog.
Scientists in the UK have already developed an initiative called “CoroNerve Study Group” to study the neurological and neuropsychiatric complications of COVID-19.
Brain Fog May Be Linked To PTSD
The term “brain fog” has been associated with other COVID-19-related symptoms such as extreme tiredness, low mood, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is believed to affect about one-quarter of COVID-19 survivors who spent time in intensive care, said Dr. Nick Grey, a consultant clinical psychologist at Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust in Worthing, West Sussex, England.
A report published in The Clinical Neuropsychologist also associates brain fog and other neurological symptoms to PTSD, a condition that occurred in other coronavirus outbreaks, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Data reviewed from these outbreaks showed that SARS and MERS survivors had a heightened risk for PTSD.
The report’s authors wrote that PTSD symptoms may have been caused by invasive procedures, such as intubation and ventilation, used when treating COVID-19 patients. In addition to this, delirium (the extreme confusion suffered by some COVID-19 patients) caused them to experience hallucinations, and patients may continue to be troubled by the memory of these “terrifying sensations,” according to the report.
COVID Survivors Gets Help From Support Group
Rather than struggle with the coronavirus in isolation, thousands of COVID-19 survivors worldwide have joined the Body Politic Covid-19 support group to affirm each other’s experiences and help each other through tough times. According to the group’s website, 18,000 people worldwide who have tested positive for the coronavirus, are experiencing symptoms, or are recovering from the virus have joined Body Politic COVID-19, which is on the Slack social media platform.
Two of its members are Montano and Mirabai Nicholson-McKellar of Byron Bay, Australia, who continues to struggle with brain fog. Nicholson-McKellar said the term, “brain fog,” does not actually describe the crippling effect the condition has had on her life.
Because of her “cognitive impairment,” the term she prefers to use, Nicholson-McKellar said she cannot work more than one to two hours a day, write a text or mail or have a coherent conversation. Even going shopping is a challenge, she said.
When she had COVID-19 in March, Nicholson-McKellar said she was hospitalized, had chest pains, a migraine headache for 11 days, and three positive test results. Now, when she gets tired, her cognitive impairment becomes worse, and all she can do is stay in bed and watch TV. When cooking, she can become so forgetful that she burns pots.
Nicholson-McKellar said she feels she’s a shadow of her former self, not living, just “simply existing.”