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How to Cope With Post-COVID Brain Fog

An illustration of a person holding their head and there are clouds around them; like "brain fog"

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Key Takeaways

  • Brain fog is a common symptom reported by COVID long-haulers.  
  • People who have brain fog describe it as the inability to concentrate or to think clearly, as well as trouble remembering things.
  • It is not known whether brain fog is permanent after COVID-19, but there are ways to cope with it.

Some people have been experiencing persistent symptoms after having COVID-19. One of the most common symptoms reported by COVID long-haulers is "brain fog," which is a term that can apply to several symptoms related to thinking and memory.

People who have brain fog after having COVID-19 may experience one or several symptoms, and the severity of their symptoms can range from mild to severe enough to make it hard for them to go about their daily lives.

What Is Brain Fog?

Brain fog is not a single medical condition; rather, it's a collection of symptoms related to a person's thinking and memory.

Some people describe brain fog as not being able to concentrate, focus, or think clearly. They may struggle to pay attention, have trouble remembering things, or feel mental exhaustion. If you are experiencing brain fog you may:

  • Take longer to think of someone's name
  • Start a task but find it difficult to finish it
  • Have trouble remembering what you were going to do when you walk into a room

A study of more than 235,000 COVID patients estimated that 33.62% of people had neurological or psychiatric symptoms in the 6 months after their bout with COVID illness.

Is Brain Fog a Medical Diagnosis?

There is no official definition of brain fog, nor is one likely to be created soon—partly because the medical community is divided on the subject.

“There's no consensus about what it is, and I think that's because the term is still quite new,” James C. Jackson, PsyD, director of behavioral health at the ICU Recovery Center at Vanderbilt University, told Verywell. “Prior to COVID, brain fog was a term that you would hear occasionally in the context of cognitive outcomes in people with cancer.”

Andrew Budson, MD, chief of cognitive and behavioral neurology at the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, told Verywell that he is “not in favor of trying to turn brain fog into a medical definition" because it is "not a specific medical entity.”

However, Budson noted that brain fog might be included in the overall term encephalopathy, which is any condition or malfunction of the brain.

What Causes Brain Fog?

It's not clear what causes brain fog in people who have had COVID-19. Researchers and healthcare providers are still learning about persistent COVID-19 symptoms and figuring out how to help the people who experience them.

Jackon said that brain fog has been seen in severely ill people who were on ventilators in the intensive care unit (ICU) but also in people who were only mildly ill.

What Are Some Non-COVID Causes of Brain Fog?

There are several conditions that can produce brain fog. For example, during and after pregnancy some people report having “pregnancy brain” or “mommy brain" and people with cancer undergoing chemotherapy often describe experiencing “chemo brain.” Other medical conditions that are known to cause mental fogginess are multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injuries, and chronic fatigue syndrome. The symptoms can also be caused by certain medications.

"In some people, it can be that the virus directly attacks the brain,” Budson said. “That's not common, but it can happen.” He adds that the virus can also cause strokes which can affect cognitive function.

Jackson explained that people who were severely ill with COVID-19 could have experienced small areas of brain damage from hypoxia and inflammation while they were on ventilators.

Possible Psychological Root

Jackson said that psychological causes of brain fog should not be ruled out because anxiety can cause many of the symptoms. That said, he also acknowledges that "a lot of COVID survivors are a little cautious and uncomfortable when they hear from a provider say you may have a problem with anxiety because the message received is that it is all in your head.”

Still, Jackson said that a person with long-haul COVID might be unable to engage in meaningful activities, may have lost a job, or be worrying about the future. In this case, “it would be quite normal to develop anxiety, and in that context, that's what I would expect," Jackson added.

According to Jackson, "we need to thoughtfully explore whether the psychological dynamics are contributing to worsening cognitive problems" but ultimately, identifying a single cause for COVID-19 brain fog “may be a bit of a fool's errand because there could be a lot of pathways by which people with COVID developed cognitive impairment."

Budson said that for some people, "almost certainly the brain fog will be temporary because there's been no permanent damage to the brain." In these cases, the brain fog might be like the disruption of thinking and memory that comes with a bad cold or the flu and will go away gradually with time.

What This Means For You

If you're experiencing symptoms like trouble remembering people's names or finishing tasks after having COVID-19, you might be experiencing "brain fog." Even though medical professionals are divided about whether it's a true medical term, there are things that you can do to help improve your cognitive function. Getting plenty of sleep, exercising, and using brain training apps or games might help improve your symptoms.

What You Can Do About Brain Fog

There is no consensus on how to treat COVID-19 brain fog. Mostly, it's the same treatments that are used to help patients with conditions like brain injuries or stroke.  

Identifying the Problem

Jackson said that when patients come to providers and say that they have "brain fog," the first thing that doctors need to do is "drill down to try to discern exactly what they mean.”

For example, Budson said that for many patients, "initially, the biggest disruption is the ability to pay attention." People may also report problems retaining information. However, some of those symptoms could be related to a lack of attention or a poor attention span.

Jackson said making the differentiation is important because if a patient has "memory issues, we're going to do one thing" and if they "have problems with attention, we're going to do something else."

Testing and Exercising Your Brain

People who have brain fog can have their cognitive abilities tested to help identify different types of cognitive impairment. Jackson said that the "people who would do more definitive cognitive testing typically would be neuropsychologists or perhaps speech and language pathologists,” though he acknowledges that these health professionals can be difficult to find or hard to access.

There are also brain exercises or brain training games, computer programs, or smartphone apps that can be used—but whether or how much they help is debatable.

“Brain training activities do help people a lot with the very specific activity that they're being trained on,” Budson said. For example, the training may help some with similar activities, but it may not help improve a person's daily functioning at all.

Though, Budson said that person who is having trouble remembering people’s names or some other specific tasks could benefit from a game or app that trains for that.

How to Cope With Brain Fog

Here are a few research-backed strategies for coping with brain fog:

  • Get regular aerobic exercise
  • Try cognitive stimulation, like puzzles, games, brain training apps, or learning a new language
  • Make sure to get enough sleep
  • Eat a diet high in monounsaturated fats, plant protein, whole grains, and fish
  • Stay socially connected and active

Lifestyle Changes

Budson advises people with brain fog to do gentle aerobic exercise regularly, such as walking at a moderate pace "because moderate activity actually helps the brain process information better and improves oxygenation to the brain." He also advises patients to follow a Mediterranean-style diet.

Jackson said that cognitive rehabilitation is frequently used for patients with cognitive problems, and usually has two goals: to help patients improve their cognitive function and to compensate or offset for skills they now lack.

Acceptance and Mindfulness

At Vanderbilt, COVID-19 patients are using acceptance and commitment therapy, which teaches them to work on improving the cognitive problems that they have and also to accept them, which can help them deal with the challenges psychologically.

Budson said that there are also strategies for working around a problem with thinking or memory, for example, "all sorts of different memory aids from calendars planners and to-do list, pillboxes, and phone apps that can be used to help people use the parts of their brain and organizational systems that are working well, to compensate for the parts that are not working.”

Practicing mindfulness can also help people learn to pay attention better, and Budson said that he is "a big believer that people can improve their ability to pay attention.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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