Even after recovering from COVID-19, some people find the illness can continue to impact the way their brain functions. Confusion, headaches, trouble thinking straight and brain fuzziness can be long-haul symptoms of COVID-19.
But if you have symptoms related to your brain, you may not notice them right away. Sometimes the symptoms can show up weeks after COVID-19 infection. You may even see signs of long COVID if you only had mild symptoms, or none at all.
The good news is that these symptoms usually go away on their own – and there are things you can do that may help them go away even sooner. Below, we provide tips on how to treat COVID-19 brain fog, mental fatigue and headaches at home, as well as what might cause these symptoms. But first we’ll take a look at reasons why your brain may not be acting as it normally does.
What causes brain problems after COVID-19?
If you’ve had a headache for weeks or you’re having trouble thinking or concentrating, it’s not because your brain was infected by the coronavirus. Rather, it may be related to how your body reacted to getting sick. Here are some factors that contribute to brain issues after COVID-19 recovery:
The stress of COVID-19 and getting treated
Some treatment protocols for COVID-19, such as sedation, intubation and various medications can be intense – and being isolated from friends and family can make the situation feel even worse.
Plus, fear and loneliness related to the coronavirus can trigger a stress response that makes your senses work overtime, which could cause both brain and body fatigue.
Inflammation caused by overactive immune system
Even after COVID-19 is gone, your body’s immune system is still working hard to fix the damage left by the virus. One way your immune system does this is by producing cytokines, which are biological chemicals that encourage inflammation to help your body fight infection.
Research suggests the immune systems of some people with a severe case of COVID-19 can be overactive, producing what’s often referred to as a “cytokine storm.” This inflammation can temporarily get in the way of how neurons in your brain communicate with each other. This can sometimes result in neurological symptoms, as well as COVID-19 fatigue and muscle weakness.
It's possible that inflammation may continue for a few months after you have recovered from COVID-19. But physical damage to the brain is very rare – and when your immune system is back to normal, your brain should be, too.
Other long-COVID symptoms
If you were severely ill with the coronavirus, you may also have lingering COVID-19 heart symptoms or lung problems after infection that impact how well your body works. For example, these symptoms could cause lower oxygen levels in your bloodstream, which in turn can contribute to neurological symptoms.
What is COVID-19 brain fog?
There’s no clear-cut definition of what brain fog is. Most people use the term to describe a collection of post COVD-19 symptoms that include memory loss, reduced attention, an inability to think straight, confusion, difficulty recalling words, slow thinking, trouble focusing and dizziness.
What does brain fog feel like?
You’ve probably had brain fog before, possibly from inadequate sleep or the temporary effects of some medications. Your head may feel fuzzy, or it may be hard to think as clearly and as quickly as you are used to.
Why does COVID-19 cause brain fog?
Researchers are still investigating how and why COVID-19 causes brain fog. Certainly, the experience of having COVID-19 can be enough to cause brain fog – it can be hard to think clearly if you’re not able to get enough sleep, are constantly fatigued or have a headache. But it turns out that certain brain changes may also contribute to lingering COVID-19 brain fog.
Research supported by the National institute of Health suggests that even a mild case of COVID-19 can cause long-term changes to the immune system and neurons. Researchers found that getting COVID-19 activates immune cells called microglia in the brain – and that these cells remained more reactive for weeks after getting sick.
One outcome of more reactive microglia is that your brain has a harder time completing its regular tasks. For example, your brain may be slower to create new neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that’s important in learning and memory. As a result, it may be more difficult for you to concentrate or remember things.
How long does brain fog last after COVID-19?
It varies from person to person. Symptoms may only last a few days or in some cases several months after the illness. But most people fully recover.
Treatment for COVID-19 brain fog at home
Taking care of your mind and body is one of the best ways to lift the fog that’s covering your brain. Here are things that can help:
- Eat well – Fill up your plate with nutrient-rich foods that are good for your brain like fruits, veggies, whole grains and lean proteins. Try to limit highly processed foods with lots of sugar, preservatives and saturated fat.
- Stay hydrated – Your brain is about 75% water. When you’re dehydrated, your brain doesn’t have the support it needs. So, aim for at least eight glasses of water each day.
- Stay active – When you move, it increases oxygen flow throughout your body and your brain. If you’re able to be active outdoors, that’s even better – spending time outdoors is a proven mood booster. You may not be up to a lot of exercise at first, so start small and gradually work up to 30 minutes most days.
- Manage stress – Keeping stress levels in check can help with brain fog and your mental health. Guided imagery and deep breathing are a couple of great techniques proven to reduce the effects of stress.
- Avoid alcohol and tobacco – Both alcohol and tobacco can cause inflammation in your brain. Cutting back on these substances may help reduce any inflammation that’s getting in the way of brain function.
- Play games – Solving puzzles, word or logic games give your brain a workout. So, say “game on” to Pictionary with friends, solitaire on your computer or Scrabble on your phone.
- Track your activities – If you find yourself forgetting to take your medications or missing activities, try using a day planner or setting up calendar reminders on your phone.
When to talk to a doctor about your COVID-19 brain fog
If your symptoms don’t go away after a couple of weeks and are getting in the way of your daily life, talk to your primary care doctor or clinician. They’ll first rule out other possible causes of cognitive problems, such as vitamin or nutritional deficiencies, or high blood sugar. Then they’ll discuss activities and treatments that may help you feel better.
Possible treatments may include behavioral strategies such as meditation, exercise and support groups, and psychological counseling. Your doctor may also refer you to an occupational therapist or speech language pathologist for cognitive rehabilitation.
What is mental fatigue after COVID-19?
Mental fatigue can be a symptom of COVID-19. If you have mental fatigue, it can be hard to find the energy for simple, everyday tasks, causing you to wonder, “Why am I so tired after COVID-19?”
What does mental fatigue feel like?
- Poor attention and focus – You may have difficulty concentrating or find your mind wandering more than usual.
- Memory problems – Short-term memory difficulties can be a sign of mental fatigue.
- Low energy levels – You may frequently feel tired or sleepy, and less interested or motivated to do things you normally enjoy doing.
- Mood changes – Mental fatigue can cause moodiness and irritability.
- Other cognitive symptoms – Other symptoms may include headaches, dizziness or blurry vision.
- Loss of appetite – Mental fatigue can also make the idea of eating less appealing.
How long does mental fatigue last after COVID-19?
Usually, mental fatigue clears up in 3-4 weeks or less, but it can last for several months in some cases.
Treating mental fatigue at home
Sensory overload is a common trigger for mental fatigue. So, find ways to relax and clear your mind such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, guided imagery and aromatherapy. Keeping the lights dim and sounds low can help, too.
When to talk to a doctor about mental fatigue
If you have mental fatigue, it can be challenging to find the motivation to take the steps to get better. But talking to a doctor can help. If your symptoms don’t go away after a couple of weeks and are getting in the way of your daily life, make an appointment with your primary care doctor.
What are post COVID-19 headaches?
Some people find COVID-19 recovery comes with chronic headaches. Getting headaches after an illness or infection isn’t uncommon, but headaches after COVID-19 can be mild to severe, even if you had a mild case or didn’t have bad headaches before. Chronic headaches can also make brain fog feel worse.
But not every headache during COVID-19 recovery can be chalked up to the coronavirus. It’s important to remember that headaches are common and are often signs of seasonal allergies, stress, fatigue or other conditions. Headaches can also be caused by weather changes, food choices and lack of sleep.
How long do COVID-19 headaches last?
COVID-19 headaches can last for weeks or even months in some cases.
Post COVID-19 headache treatment
It’s best to start with over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen (Advil). If that’s not dulling the pain, try:
- Using a cold pack on your forehead
- Using a heating pad or hot compress on the back of your head
- Dimming the lights
- Avoiding chewing gum
- Keeping screen time to a minimum
- Limiting teeth grinding – if you wake up with a sore jaw and a bad headache, you might be grinding your teeth at night. Using a mouthguard at night could help. You can find these at most retail pharmacies.
When to get help for post COVID-19 headaches
If you’ve been treating your headache with over-the-counter medications for a week or more, it’s time to talk to your primary care doctor or clinician.
While over-the-counter medications can help in the short-term, if you take them for too long, you can get a medication overuse headache in which your head pain comes back stronger than ever.
Treatment for severe headaches after COVID-19 usually includes a combination of medications, as well as psychological and physical rehabilitation techniques.
Cognitive rehabilitation for COVID-19 brain symptoms
Cognitive rehabilitation is like physical therapy but for the brain. The number of treatment sessions depends on your needs but is often a few times a week for a month or more.
During cognitive rehabilitation, you’ll do exercises to help with your specific problems. For example, if you have COVID-19 memory symptoms, your therapist may show you cards at the beginning of the appointment and ask you to remember them later in the session.
If you might be a good fit for cognitive rehabilitation, your primary care doctor will refer you to the right specialists.
Get help for your brain after COVID-19
COVID-19 can impact brain function, and its effects can be felt during the recovery process. But it's possible to start feeling like yourself again.
If it’s been more than a few weeks and you’re experiencing brain fog, mental fatigue, severe headaches or other long-haul COVID-19 symptoms, contact your primary care doctor to discuss treatment for your symptoms.