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.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), multiple studies have confirmed that mental health and physical health are inextricably linked — meaning, if your physical health isn’t doing so hot, it’s likely your mental health won’t be either. Moreover, Psych Central reported studies have suggested that mental illnesses can suppress the immune system, due to an increase in released stress hormones like cortisol. Dealing with the flu and mental health issues can become a vicious cycle, especially if you treating one illness without treating the other.

One of the ways the flu can affect your mental health is by triggering brain fog, or making it worse. 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 like fibromyalgia, depression, bipolar disorder, autoimmune diseases, and more. People who do not live with chronic illness can also get brain fog every now and again; the mental fatigue can be caused by regularly skipping your seven to nine recommended hours of sleep, or if you are experiencing more stress than usual. Considering the flu can cause headaches, sinus pressure, and confusion — especially if you have a high fever — it’s no surprise the viral infection could exacerbate or worsen brain fog for some people. Those who already experience brain fog due to a chronic illness may be more susceptible to feeling the flu-like symptoms long after the virus has passed.

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Additionally, the viral infection could trigger a depressive episode or other similar mental health issues. 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. But you’re not just psyching yourself out if your depression intensifies while you’re sick: Both the common flu and mental health issues activate an immune response and cause neuroinflammation in your brain.

Even if you don’t struggle with a mental illness, missing school days or falling behind on work because you’re sick could 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, staying home until you actually feel better is important. If you don’t allow yourself ample time to heal your body and mind, the flu could come back with a vengeance and intensify. (Not to mention, not everyone is able to get the flu shot, and by going out while sick, you could be inadvertently putting them in harm's way.)

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. 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. Try to prioritize your mental health, along with your physical health when you have the flu; it could make your recovery process run smoother, quicker, and easier.