With flu season marching in, you're hopefully making plans to get your flu shot if you haven't already. But if you do find yourself with influenza-like shivers at some point, it might impact more than just your physical health. Having the flu can take a toll on your mental health, too. In addition to your physical influenza symptoms like fever, runny nose, cough, body aches, and trouble breathing, the flu might give you brain fog —you might get mentally fatigued, irritable, or confused.
Why Does The Flu Give You Brain Fog?
Feeling fuzzy when you've got influenza isn't uncommon, says Dr. Sanjeev Jain, M.D., board-certified allergist and immunologist and founder of Columbia Allergy. "There is a very intimate link between our nervous system and our immune system," he says. It makes a lot of sense that your brain would get muddled while your immune system is working hard to fight off infection. All that effort inside your body can fog your brain, and even mimic symptoms of depression and other illnesses.
"For those who are lucky to have a milder case [of the flu], they may experience mental cloudiness, or 'brain fog,'" says Dr. Anita Skariah, D.O., a physician who specializes in internal medicine and pediatrics at UNC Healthcare. "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." Those memory issues may show up in difficulty concentrating and maintaining your focus, Skariah says.
The flu can cause also headaches and sinus pressure, which may worsen brain fog for some people. "Remember, when you are sick, your immune system is diverting energy to fight the virus," says Skariah. "Normal function may slow down while the immune system conquers the virus, and protects you."
How The Flu Interacts With Mental Health
There's a chance that the viral infection could coincide with existing mental health conditions, such as depression. "Depression is known to increase our stress hormones as well as proinflammatory cytokines, which in turn can lead to increased inflammation while also suppressing our ability to fight certain infections," says Jain. In other words, the more stress hormones you've got floating around from depression, the worse flu symptoms you might get — potentially leading to an even bigger case of brain fog and mental fatigue. According to Jain, 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.
You’re not just psyching yourself out if your depression-related brain fog intensifies while you’re sick. 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 [depression and the flu] can be exacerbated by each other, all individuals with a history of depression need to have an action plan in place," says Jain. "In addition to the steps described above to treat the flu, individuals with depression need to have an accommodation plan worked out through their physician and employer so that they can take time off from work if needed. They also need to work with their physician and/or therapist to have interventions as needed to keep their depression under control."
Even if you don’t live with a mental health condition, missing school days or falling behind on work because you’re sick can 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 worries you may feel about missing work due to the flu, staying home until you actually feel better (if you're able) is important. Why? "Expectations to 'get back to work' is likely to prolong the illness and exacerbate the mental toll," Jain says.
How To Improve Brain Fog From The Flu
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 of 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.
"Beyond medically treating the flu and depression, sleep is the most effective remedy for both conditions," Jain tells Bustle. "When the body is well-rested, brain fog will improve."
Dr. Sanjeev Jain, M.D., board-certified allergist and immunologist, founder of Columbia Allergy
Dr. Anita Skariah, D.O., internal medicine and pediatric physician, UNC Healthcare
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