Does The Flu Affect Your Mental Health? Brain Fog Can Impact Everyday Tasks When You’re Sick
By now, you probably already know the flu season is in full swing this year, and it is gearing up to be the worst one seen in recent history. There's still a decent chance you could come down with the virus — even if you received the flu shot — because the shot is less effective on a widespread strain of the virus than in past years. Drinking a lot of water, getting ample rest, and taking prescribed medications are all vital things to do when you have the flu, but it’s easy to hyperfocus on those physical aspects of recovering. Tending to your mental health when you have the flu is important, too. The viral infection is known for its host of physical symptoms such as fever, runny nose, cough, and trouble breathing, but it can also have an impact on your mental wellness: The American Family Physician reports the flu oftentimes causes fatigue, irritability, confusion, and other changes to your mental state. So, if you are feeling like the flu is affecting your mind just as much as your body, you’re not alone.
One of the ways the flu can affect your mental health is by triggering brain fog, or making it worse in some cases. Simply put, the term brain fog is used to describe a state of mental fatigue characterized by “memory problems, lack of mental clarity, poor concentration, and inability to focus.” Though brain fog is not a standalone medical condition, it is often a symptom of chronic illnesses such as fibromyalgia, depression, bipolar disorder, autoimmune diseases, and more. People who do not live with a chronic illness can also experience brain fog on occasion; This mental fatigue can be triggered by regularly skipping your seven to nine recommended hours of sleep, stress, and, unsurprisingly, viral infections.
"For those who are lucky to have a milder case [of the flu], they may experience mental cloudiness, or 'brain fog.' Some strains of influenza, but not all, are able to sneak past your immune system and penetrate the brain, causing widespread inflammation via inflammatory markers. One particular area of the brain called the hippocampus is involved with memory," Anita Skariah, DO, a physician who specializes in internal medicine and pediatrics at UNC Healthcare, tells Bustle.
The flu can cause also headaches and sinus pressure, which may also worsen brain fog for some people. "Remember, when you are sick, your immune system is diverting energy to fight the virus. Normal function may slow down while the immune system conquers the virus, and protects you," says Skariah.
What's more, there's a chance that the viral infection could trigger existing mental health conditions, such as depression. Psych Central reported in 2018 that studies have found that mental illnesses can suppress the immune system, due to an increase in the release of stress hormones (aka, cortisol). Many of the symptoms of the flu and common cold — such as lethargy, loss of appetite, fatigue, and interrupted sleep or concentration — mimic the symptoms of depression. So, you’re not just psyching yourself out if your depression-related brain fog intensifies while you’re sick: Like the common flu, some studies have suggested that mental illnesses cause inflammation in the brain and body. Though having depression and contracting the flu is like hitting an unlucky jackpot, being aware of the way your mental health is affected by the flu is key to getting through it.
Even if you don’t live with a mental health condition, missing school days or falling behind on work because you’re sick can definitely affect your mood. Playing catch-up after being bedridden with the flu for a few days, or for as long as a week if your flu is severe, can cause extra stress. Despite any worry you may feel about missing work due to the flu, staying home until you actually feel better (if you're able) is important. Why? As The University of Mississippi Medical Center reported, trying to rush your recovery can exacerbate your symptoms.
Skariah explains that if you do develop brain fog when you catch the flu, it may take anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks for the cloudiness, and mental fatigue to resolve — depending on the person. "Be patient, rest, and give your body time to heal," she says.
Since physical and mental health are so interconnected, making sure you follow the recommended treatment guidelines for the flu could help you avoid triggering brain fog, or mood changes. Prioritizing both your physical and mental health is important to your recovery process when you have the flu; it could have you on your feet faster, and feeling better in no time at all.
This post was originally published on January 23, 2018. It was updated on July 1, 2019.