Having The Flu Might Temporarily Alter Your Brain Structure

A new study suggests the flu may be doing harm to our bodies beyond feeling crummy for a couple of days. As Science Daily reports, certain strains of the flu may impact our brains even after the immediate physical effects have subsided. So, just in case you needed another reason to get vaccinated ASAP, there you go.

The study, published in the scientific journal JNeurosci, examined female mice infected with three different flu strains: H1N1, H3N2, H7N7. Two of the strains (H3N2, H7N7) leads to structural changes in the mice’s hippocampus, which plays a significant role in memory and emotion. This, in turn, lead to memory impairments in the infected mice. Additionally, these observed structural changes persisted for one month after infection.

Not to freak you out entirely, but H3N2 is the most common strain of flu going around this season. About 80 percent of flu cases this year are from this strain. As a reminder, the findings of this most recent study are preliminary. But, if nothing else, they should give you that extra motivation to get your flu shot if you already haven’t.

“[Flu] infection in humans may therefore not only lead to short-term responses in infected organs,” researchers wrote in their study’s conclusion, “but also trigger neuroinflammation and associated chronic alterations in the [central nervous system].” In English: the effects of the flu may be more long-term than we initially believed, specifically affected our brain’s memory-processing abilities.

Ah yes, just what I needed. Another reason to fear the flu. Cool, cool, cool. Totally chill and very fine. Now excuse me while I go test my memory skills on apps for completely unrelated reasons.

While the longer-term effects of the flu haven’t been as widely studied, previous research has found that the flu can affect brain health in the short term as well. One 2011 study focusing on the H1N1 strain found the 42 percent of infect patients complained of mild neurological effects (i.e. headaches). An additional 9 percent complained of more severe brain-related side effects, like numbness or paresthesia.

Because the flu is considered a respiratory disease, its side effects are typically associated with breathing and our body’s airways (i.e. congestion, coughing, sinus pressure). However, as this most recent research suggests, it may be affecting our brains more directly as well.

Of course, physical health and mental health aren’t mutually exclusive. The way we feel physically certainly impacts how we’re feeling mentally. (Anyone who’s gotten the flu this season will tell you it didn’t make them particularly chipper.) That brain fog you feel when you have the flu? It’s legit.

When your sick, it can feel difficult to complete routine tasks because of cloudy memory, lack of concentration, or trouble focusing. That’s side effect isn’t all in your head. (I kind of is? But you get what I’m saying.) According to National Institute of Mental Health, physical health and mental health are linked. So, taking care of our bodies is important as it also affects our brains.

There are plenty of things you can do if you have the flu to help you get better quicker and avoid spreading it further. The absolute, number one thing to do? Wash your hands. The CDC lists washing your hands as one of the best ways to avoid getting sick or avoid spreading your sickness if you’re already infected. It’s also a good idea to stay home, from work or school, giving your body time to rest and, again, preventing contamination.

And, for the love of all that is sanitary, get the flu shot, if you can. Current CDC estimates say you lower your risk of getting the flu by one third if you get this year’s vaccination.