Forgot things you knew before you got COVID-19? It could be COVID brain fog

Man holding his head in his hands in front of a laptop

Editor’s note: As what we know about COVID-19 evolves, so could the information in this story. Find our most recent COVID-19 articles here and learn the latest in COVID-19 prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some photos and videos on this site were filmed prior to the COVID-19 outbreak or may not reflect current physical distancing and/or masking guidelines.

You got through COVID-19, but now you’re forgetting names and passwords and even how to get to places you used to frequent.

It may be difficult to concentrate for very long. You may lose your train of thought more often and forget how to do tasks you were familiar with before you were infected with COVID-19.

You could have COVID brain fog, a common symptom for people who suffer from long COVID.

A computer programmer with COVID brain fog might forget how a program works — even if that programmer wrote the program recently. A bartender, who used to mix drinks without much thought before COVID-19, now draws a blank.

I had one patient of long COVID who made light of her sudden forgetfulness. She was driving and turned to her husband with a question: “By the way, where are we going? I can’t remember.”

It can be frustrating. It can seem like early dementia. I try to assure my patients that it isn’t. Dementia gets worse over time, while the brain fog from long COVID typically gets better within a few months. You’re likely not going to permanently lose brain capacity. What I find in my practice is that most people can get back to the jobs that they did before, sometimes with minor modifications. It just takes time.

How long does it take for memory to recover from COVID-19?

A lot of people experience fuzzy thinking when they’re first infected with COVID-19 and even a month or so afterwards. But then that goes away along with all the other symptoms they had.

If your foggy thinking lasts three to four months out, that’s usually considered a symptom of long COVID.

My patients who give their brains a rest recover the fastest, sometimes in just a few months. You may have to reduce your work hours. If you used to work eight to 12 hours, now that might be too taxing on your brain. You might need to go part time or take a month off.

Some people with long COVID experience improvement in their brain fog within three months, and it’s all gone or nearly all gone in six months to a year. For others, it persists even longer. Most patients benefit from taking a break.

It’s kind of like if you’re a marathon runner and you sprain your ankle, you could say ‘I’m not going to let that stop me from running.’ Then your ankle inevitably gets worse. Or you could rest the ankle for a while before returning to the track or treadmill.

Is COVID-19 brain fog a common symptom?

Yes. Among my patients with long COVID, one-third to one-half of them say they have some sort of difficulties with thinking.

Can vaccination prevent long COVID?

How can COVID-19 affect the brain?

We, as researchers, don’t know exactly how COVID-19 affects the brain. What we do know is that when we scan the brains of patients with long COVID, sure enough the cells are not as active as they should be in areas responsible for short-term memory, sleep, emotional regulation and executive functioning, which are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus and juggle multiple tasks at once.

We’re not seeing brain neurons die but, instead, their activity slows. The ability of the brain to grow connections between brain cells, also called neural plasticity, is reduced in some parts of the brain. We don’t know if these brain changes are permanent.

Is brain fog in COVID-19 similar to brain fog after chemotherapy?

Yes, it’s the same set of symptoms patients sometimes experience after chemotherapy, radiation or a traumatic brain injury such as a concussion or stroke.

What are some of the biggest challenges people with COVID-19 brain fog have in recovering?

The biggest obstacle people face is employers who don’t accommodate their need for time off or a reduced schedule to give their brains time to recover. Long COVID is real. It’s not patients exaggerating or pretending. An estimated 200 million people worldwide have experienced or are experiencing long COVID. If employers want their staff with long COVID to be healthy and back to work, they’re going to have to make accommodations for them.

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