A few weeks ago, I had what is called a transient ischemic attack — don’t worry, it was brief, hasn’t returned, and the doctors examined me inside & out with embarrassing thoroughness, and have given me a clean bill of health — but it was terrifying. For a whole ten minutes, I couldn’t focus on a simple and familiar task on the computer. I knew what I had to do, if I was thinking normally, and I couldn’t figure out how to find basic, abstract functions on the screen in front of me. When it passed, then click-click-click it was a second’s work, and I couldn’t understand what had happened.
Today I read Ed Yong’s latest, and dear god, it is chilling.
On March 25, 2020, Hannah Davis was texting with two friends when she realized that she couldn’t understand one of their messages. In hindsight, that was the first sign that she had COVID-19. It was also her first experience with the phenomenon known as “brain fog,” and the moment when her old life contracted into her current one. She once worked in artificial intelligence and analyzed complex systems without hesitation, but now “runs into a mental wall” when faced with tasks as simple as filling out forms. Her memory, once vivid, feels frayed and fleeting. Former mundanities—buying food, making meals, cleaning up—can be agonizingly difficult. Her inner world—what she calls “the extras of thinking, like daydreaming, making plans, imagining”—is gone. The fog “is so encompassing,” she told me, “it affects every area of my life.” For more than 900 days, while other long-COVID symptoms have waxed and waned, her brain fog has never really lifted.
Of long COVID’s many possible symptoms, brain fog “is by far one of the most disabling and destructive,” Emma Ladds, a primary-care specialist from the University of Oxford, told me. It’s also among the most misunderstood. It wasn’t even included in the list of possible COVID symptoms when the coronavirus pandemic first began. But 20 to 30 percent of patients report brain fog three months after their initial infection, as do 65 to 85 percent of the long-haulers who stay sick for much longer. It can afflict people who were never ill enough to need a ventilator—or any hospital care. And it can affect young people in the prime of their mental lives.
AAAAAAAAAAAAIIEEE! That’s what I experienced…for ten minutes. But that’s one of the possible symptoms of long-COVID, and people go through it for months? I can’t imagine it. I wouldn’t want to go through that.
For example, Robertson’s brain often loses focus mid-sentence, leading to what she jokingly calls “so-yeah syndrome”: “I forget what I’m saying, tail off, and go, ‘So, yeah …’” she said. Brain fog stopped Kristen Tjaden from driving, because she’d forget her destination en route. For more than a year, she couldn’t read, either, because making sense of a series of words had become too difficult. Angela Meriquez Vázquez told me it once took her two hours to schedule a meeting over email: She’d check her calendar, but the information would slip in the second it took to bring up her inbox. At her worst, she couldn’t unload a dishwasher, because identifying an object, remembering where it should go, and putting it there was too complicated.
That’s exactly what I was trying to do! I was trying to put a presentation I had to give on my calendar/email, and somehow I couldn’t figure out where anything was or what steps I had to take. Even my brief experience with that was intolerably frustrating. It was so awful that immediately after I recovered my ability to act again, I checked into a hospital, despite feeling totally fine once it passed.
Thanks, Ed Yong. Now in addition to worrying about respiratory failure and death, I can dread losing my brain. I’ve managed to avoid getting COVID at all so far, and now I’m motivated to be even more scrupulous in my preventive efforts. It’s too bad my employers, a fucking university, has so little concern about the minds of their faculty and students.
Thanks for sharing..whatever I just read. No, seriously, give me a minute here.
I’ve seen a lot of cases of long Covid syndrome, including a case of brain fog in…a graduate student. Graduate school is bad enough and now this.
The latest was not so long ago.
An 80 year old caught Covid-19 virus. He was sick but not that sick because he had done everything right and gotten vaccinated.
Shortly after that he came down with shingles.
It turns out that the Covid-19 virus can reactivate the chickenpox virus.
It went for his eyes and he spent two months on intensive antiviral therapy.
He is OK now, his sight is back, he is driving his sports car, and taking his kayak out.
It was a close call though.
Sounds familiar. Migraine, insomnia often in combination has a similar effect on me.
Difference is, I know I’ll be better in a day or two.
My partner got COVID just from a couple of days orientation (small faculty meetings) – hadn’t even started teaching yet. Everyone please be careful out there.
Got my updated mRNA vaccine booster alongside flu shot last week. Getting Shingrix soon. My brain’s foggy enough so…wait…umm.
Marcus Ranum says
I had the same thing happen when I had my TIA: my computer made no sense anymore. I was barely able to unlock my phone and call 911 because I couldn’t type in my PIN – it took 4 or 5 tries.
The sensation of having my ability to use language fall apart on me was absolutely horrifying.
Marcus Ranum says
I got COVID a month after my TIA. I lost a couple of days. Since I was alone and unsupervised, I have no idea what happened except when I came out of it My bathrobe was in the yard covered in vomit and I had bruises on my hips from lying on a hard floor for a while. After that I had more normal symptoms including the combination of racking cough and diarrhea.
I had 2 shots and a booster and my ass was still thoroughly kicked.
The symptoms described above sound a lot like my Mom’s dementia, except she was diagnosed several years before COVID and the symptoms gradually developed.
Another overlooked cause of brain fog is toxic mold in the walls. Causes general memory issues, and other scarier problems – one of my employees almost drove off a bridge to avoid a phantom crash, and a colleague thought it was really strange that all the cars on the freeway were weaving back and forth behind him in unison, until the cops stopped him because he was the one weaving across lanes.
I wound up in the hospital for a week in high school years after speaking gibberish and puking and stuff. I know the frustration of expressive aphasia. They never conclusively diagnosed it. TIA was among many possibilities.
My mom had bouts of expressive aphasia when she was terminal with lung cancer that spread. Just as terrifying from the outside for me.
When being stressed out and burned out, I discovered I could not follow the reasoning in my old math notes.
It sucks. And it applies to everyday tasks as well.
But the post-covid brain fog seems several levels worse.
Ray Ceeya says
Ouch mate. Sounds similar to me after I have a panic attack. Had one at work the other day and I couldn’t remember the names of my coworkers for a couple hours. I could still do my job and work, but my brain went to never never land and part of it wasn’t coming back for a while. There’s also vomiting and lying flat on the floor of the employee bathroom involved.
Sounds like my life since I was diagnosed with Sjogren’s in 2008. Many autoimmune diseases cause severe brain fog.
My daughter has Mast Cell Activation Syndrome. She’s been telling me that researchers who study MCAS have been noting that many of the symptoms of long COVID match the symptoms of MCAS. It’s made those researchers very hopeful that as more is learned about long COVID, more will also be learned about MCAS and other autoimmune diseases.
Brian Pansky says
sorry to hear about everyone’s experiences.
I was just going to talk about this!
I JUST had an experience that I’m still somewhat struggling with. Moved into a new home at the end of last month. Before the night was over, I wanted to move out, and wondered if my long-term health had already been impacted. Place was extremely humid, and found damage in bathroom I hadn’t seen before. So I suspect mold.
Had some possible psychological symptoms, like having my mind seem to be forced apart from what I was thinking about [admittedly that was in bed at night, when i often lose track of thought, but it definitely felt quite different]. Also some times of loss of awareness, despite no loss in vision. Also sometimes a feeling that my mind is being very clumsy, like tripping over and spilling things, shifting around. Other stuff too. The article above mentions daydreaming, I’m not sure but I think my imagination is less vivid and more difficult.
I did move out, and maybe the psychological effects have faded, hopefully. But I’ve still felt unwell in various ways. My room seems to cause some eye, nose, and throat irritation. I’ve also had extremely strong/sensitive sense of smell. So I’ve been trying to throw out all of my stuff.
Doctor can’t see me until about a week from now. Maybe I’ll go to a faster one. I don’t know. Seems mild for now, I just worry about any long-term exposure. Not that a doctor is going to give me a clean place to live.
Electric Monk says
Welcome to my life, only I didn’t get the fog from COVID, but as a lasting side effect from being on heart-lung bypass.
Tabby Lavalamp says
Back when I was taking anti-anxiety medication to deal with the immediate after effects of PTSD, one of the side effects I was experiencing was forgetting what I was talking about mid-sentence. It was fascinating, but I knew that once I got through my prescription that would stop. But this? And not knowing if it will ever go away? This is why I’m not going to a concert I REALLY want to go to in November and why I still don’t leave home without a mask, even outside.
These descriptions of brain fog match one of the worst symptoms I suffered years ago with several bouts of depression. Happily I found the right doctors and meds for me, but before that there many times I’d go to, say, wash the dishes and couldn’t figure out how to start or what steps to take. I’m beginning to wonder if the brain fog caused or contributed to the depression.
Doc Bill says
Last century while in grad school, we’re talking Pleistocene, I was at max pressure. Prelims were coming up, research hit a snag, I had papers to referee, upcoming seminar to host and my brain was full. Maxed out. I was writing a letter to my parents telling them that I was not coming home for Christmas (they always enjoyed hearing that!) and when I came to write their address, my home address, on the envelope I drew a complete blank. I had no idea what their/my home address was. I knew the street, town and state but not the address or zip code. I had to rummage around the apartment to find an envelope with their address on it. Even when I found it, drew a blank. Really, that’s the number? Huh, never seen that before.
About a decade later I had a similar bout when I couldn’t remember the year, nineteen eighty-something.