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 , 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.

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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.

Flu brain is a thing. And this season especially, everyone’s trying to avoid it. And no, you aren’t imagining it. People really are throwing you side-eye when you cough, sneeze or sniffle in public. Nobody wants the flu.

You likely know the symptoms all too well. But did you ever wonder what havoc these viruses play inside of the body, particularly the brain? And although this flu season started off slowly, it’s spreading quickly now, making this information more important than ever. And plus, it’s just really cool info.

Cold & Flu: Basic Symptoms & ‘Flu Brain’

When it comes to colds and the flu, the cause of infection is often unknown. Was it little Susie? Or the doorknob at work? What comes next though, is all too familiar. The coughing, the sore throat, brain fog, crankiness, fatigue, stuffy nose, and aches. This is known collectively as sickness behavior. Cold and flu symptoms are often grouped together but the two can have some distinct differences.

Both the cold and flu viruses induce fatigue/weakness, a stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat pain and coughing, but the flu virus is characterized by an accompanying fever, headache, exhaustion and general body aches and pains.

As you lay there, unable to function or move properly, as haziness takes over your brain, you may be wondering, “What is happening inside of my head?” This is what I like to call “flu brain.”

What Is Flu Brain

Immune Response

To understand the effects a virus has on your brain, AKA flu brain, you must first understand the very basic response the immune system sets off when it senses a pathogen. The body’s response to being infiltrated by any kind of foreign substance causes the immune system to become activated. The immune system is the defense mechanism to prevent an infection or pathogen from getting out of control and causing serious damage to the body.

The invasion: Initially, the virus invades the cells of the host to remain undetected by the immune system as it replicates, thereby increasing its chances of survival. Despite this act of trickery, the cells have a system to determine whether a cell is behaving appropriately or not.

A group of molecules, class 1 major histocompatibility complex proteins (MHC class 1), naturally display pieces of itself from the inside of the cell onto the cell surface. Cells infected with the virus will have MHC class 1 cells with fragments of the virus exposed on the cell surface. This causes a cascade of events to occur to eradicate pathogens from the body. Along with the virus being partially exposed on the cell surface, the host cell releases interferons, or signaling proteins, that cause neighboring cells to increase the MHC class 1 presentation on their cell surface to draw more attention to the virus.

Recognition and defense: The immune system has several types of white blood cells roaming around, policing the body searching for foreign objects to find and destroy. The white blood cells include, but are not limited to:

  • T cells
  • Natural Killer cells (NK cells)
  • Macrophages
  • Monocytes
  • Mast cells

The natural killer cells find the virus-infected cells displaying the lower levels of MHC class 1 molecules and release more substances to induce cell death. At the same time, a specific type of T cell, cytotoxic T cell, will recognize the virally infected cell due to the part of the virus exposed on the cell surface. From there, it releases cytotoxic factors to “kill” the infected cell.

Following viral identification, cytotoxic T cells also synthesize and release cytokines. Cytokines are pro-inflammatory, antibody proteins that activate and organize that immune response to a viral infection by acting upon cell receptors causing a cascade of intracellular signaling that leads to alterations in gene expression and ultimately cell functioning. (1)

Immune response and the brain: The symptoms of a cold and flu are the physical manifestations of the immune response to the viral infection. Symptoms of fever and fatigue, along with a decrease in appetite, motivation, mood, psychomotor function and concentration, are all due to the release of cytokines within different regions of the brain.

Neurotransmitters: When it comes to flu brain, neurotransmitters play a huge role. An immune system response in the central nervous system causes a significant effect on the synthesis of specific neurotransmitters and precursors:

  • Serotonin
  • Dopamine
  • Noradrenaline
  • Choline
  • Glutamate

The cytokines activate a pathway which depletes a precursor to some of the neurotransmitters, decreasing their synthesis, release and reuptake. (2)

The decrease in dopamine and serotonin affect learning and memory as well as “feel good” sensations, leaving a somewhat saddened state. A noradrenaline decrease causes a slowing in reaction time, and choline effects the ability to remember new information, while glutamate decrease affects muscle.

The decrease in neurotransmitters also impacts the neural circuits within specific regions of the brain. Neural circuits within the basal ganglia, anterior cingulate cortex, amygdala, hippocampus are impacted. These regions are associated with motor activity, motivation, anxiety, arousal, alarm and memory. (3)

Hypothalamus: Within the hypothalamus (the region that regulates body temperature, hunger, thirst as well as other autonomic functions) cytokine release provokes alterations in normal homeostatic functions to try to rid the body of the virus. Generally, there is an increase in temperature, a fever, an increase in sleep and a decrease in appetite. (4)

A fever is an attempt to create an environment that is not conducive to viral replication, while the increase in sleep allows the body to devote most of its energy on fighting the virus instead of focusing its energy on wakeful tasks.

Research by Dr. Marken Nedergaard; a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Rochester, shows that cerebral spinal fluid washes away proteins that build up in the space between brain cells during the day. This process is even more crucial as the body fights an infection and is dealing with a surplus of proteins that need to be removed from the spaces between neurons. Essentially, all of this debris can act to obstruct or slow normal metabolic function and can attribute to the “foggy headed” feeling. (5)

Cognition: The effects of the pro-inflammatory immune response on cognition and mood are a decrease in mental processing, learning and a depressed state. Much like alcohol or sleep deprivation, seasonal illness impairs cognition by dampening reaction times and the ability to store new information. (6)

In one study, 198 healthy men and women were baseline tested for cognition. A few months later, one-third of the participants had head colds and were tested again, with the healthy participants remaining as controls. When compared to previous baseline score, individuals with head colds took longer to learn new things and to perform verbal reasoning tasks as well as retrieve information. (7)

The cognitive impairment started 24 to 48 hours prior to other symptoms and lasted a few days following the stoppage of coughing and sneezing. Impairment with the flu lasted several weeks.

In another study from 2012, 25 students took simulated driving tests on two different occasions. During the first session, 15 students had a head cold, but not on the second session. The results showed an impairment of reaction time, especially for unexpected events, although basic driving skills were not impaired. (9)

These studies have illustrated that inflammation is the key factor that links the immune, neurological and psychological systems causing the cognitive deficits of seasonal illness.

Flu Brain: Prevention and Maintenance

Unfortunately, there isn’t much to be done as your body fights off a viral infection. However, there are some ways to help your body along and make you feel less foggy and more functional during your days of recuperation.

1. Never underestimate the power of positive thinking! Studies suggest that a positive outlook helps protect against seasonal illness or reduces the intensity of the symptoms, while stress undermines the immune system through cortisol release (the stress hormone) and makes your more susceptible to illness. (10)

2. Sleep. Sleep deprivation is a no-no when it comes fighting the flu. to As mentioned earlier, sleeping lets your body focus its energy on fighting the virus, allowing the body to wash away the waste products lodged in between your brain cells.

3. Consider caffeine. A 2014 study illustrated the benefits of caffeine, a stimulant, and ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory. Individuals were given either 200 milligrams of ibuprofen with 100 milligrams of caffeine or 200 milligrams of ibuprofen alone or 100 milligrams of caffeine alone or a placebo. The groups were tested two times over a 3-hour period. The caffeine and ibuprofen group showed the biggest improvement in reaction times. While I’m not big on using ibuprofen, the study also found some improvement with caffeine alone. So a cup of coffee could perk you up during seasonal illness, if you can stomach it. (11)

4. Tap flu-fighting oils. Use this guide to the best essential oils for colds, the flu and beyond to help support your body during seasonal illness.

Final Thoughts on Flu Brain

  • Seasonal illnesses like colds and influenza activate the body’s immune system, unleashing a wave of pro-inflammatory antibody proteins known as cytokines to keep pathogens under control.
  • This immune response impacts the brain and central nervous system tremendously.
  • It throws off normal neurotransmitter functioning, leading to everything from muscle pain and brain fog to symptoms of depression.
  • A cold can lead to impaired cognitive function for a few days; the flu may cause weeks of cognitive dysfunction.
  • Virus-triggered inflammation links the immune, neurological and psychological systems during cold and flu season.

Read Next: Poop: What’s Normal, What’s Not

Flu Brain: The Haze is Real

You reach for the tissues, but the box is empty. It’s been a long night and the fever and chills were keeping you up last night. So, you get up to get a new box. You stumble towards the kitchen but forgot what you were going there for. The flu made the rounds and it hit you hard. Now you are sitting on your couch trying to get some simple tasks done on your computer, but you keep ending up in a fog-like state forgetting what you were doing. Then you remember – you need a tissue, so you get up to go to the kitchen. Wait, the kitchen? Why are you going there again? Do you even have tissues in the kitchen? Do you have flu brain?

Flu brain is a thing! We all know it, but have you ever wondered the reason for it? Maybe when you are standing in the kitchen wondering why you are there.

It’s not just you, that cold and flu haze affects everyone who gets ill. In a 2012 study, 25 students were asked to participate in two separate driving exercises. During the first round, 15 of them had a cold and 10 were healthy. In the second round, at a later date, all drivers were healthy. The exercises showed that those with colds were less able to detect collisions and respond quickly to unexpected events. (1)

Another study looked at 198 healthy participants and performed a battery of tests to establish baseline cognition. The participants came back a few months later when 1/3 of them had head colds and the remainder were healthy. Those with colds reported lower alertness, a more negative mood, and psychomotor slowing. They also had a hard time learning new information, were slower at verbal reasoning and processing semantic tasks. The severity of symptoms did not impact their performance changes. (2)

So why does this happen when we are sick?

It comes down to the immune response to the flu and colds. All of those symptoms like runny nose, fever, headaches and even brain fog are a result of our body fighting off the pathogen. Every day, you have an army of

white blood cells who are always looking for foreign invaders and when they find them they send a signal to your fighters, the cytokines. These proteins, released by your immune system, cause an inflammatory response to get the pathogen out of your body.

Your immune system is going to care less about making sure you can think clearly and care more about making an inhospitable environment for that foreign invader. If your body is working overtime, you’re going to have decreased energy, not feel very well and not think straight because your body is working on that primary insult, which is that virus circulating through your blood stream. (3)

The cytokines are also going to impact the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, noradrenaline and choline. These neurotransmitters are messengers that impact mood, motivation, alertness, cognition, memory and learning. If their production is slowed, you can see why you might have a bit of brain fog.

So, it’s not all in your head. Brain fog along with all the other symptoms are your body’s normal immune response to the cold and flu. Your body is fighting off pathogens!

How do you get rid of Flu Brain?

The only way to shorten your flu brain is to shorten the length time the virus is in your body. The quicker you get the offending virus out of your body, the faster your cognitive capabilities return. The only way to do that is to bolster your immune system.

9 Ways to Support Immune System and Fight Flu Brain

  • Make sure you get plenty of Vitamin D. Between shorter days and cold weather outside we tend to not get enough exposure to the sun during winter months. Vitamin D is a great resource for avoiding respiratory tract infections- one of the key components to colds and flu. (2) Learn more about Vitamin D
  • Skip the sugars and grains. This is a good suggestion in general, but sugar and gluten will disrupt your gut flora, compromising your immune system. Since 80% of your immune system is in your gastrointestinal tract you can’t afford to attack it. (1) You also want to avoid your allergies. If you don’t know what they are get them tested.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Your immune system rebuilds, and your body heals while you sleep
  • A few squirts of silver helps. We love a great broad-spectrum silver around here. Silver hydrosol, a form of colloidal silver, has many properties that will boost your immune system by helping fight those bacteria, viruses and fungi that pass along sickness. It won’t prevent an illness, but it will kill the bad guys. Good news is it doesn’t kill those good guys that fight the illness but boosts them by helping in the fight.
  • Don’t fight the fevers. Fever is an effective way to regulate the body and the body is always working to make sure it’s running efficiently. Fever is a way to kill off unwanted bacteria. Check out our article on fevers to learn more.
  • Medicinal mushrooms build immunity. Medicinal mushrooms like reishi and chaga are great for immune support with anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antiviral properties. They have an earthy flavor and go a long way in bolstering that immune system.
  • Get an adjustment. Chiropractic adjustments are great for prevention and also important during an illness. An adjustment will take stress off the nervous system so that the body can focus on fighting the illness.
  • Keep echinacea on hand. We use a high-quality echinacea tincture at first symptoms. You won’t love the strong flavor that lingers for a while. You will love how it shortens that cold or flu though.
  • Zinc shortens your illness. We’ve known for years that zinc is a great defense against colds and even the flu. If you begin taking zinc at first sign of sickness, it can shorten the duration and severity. Even better, it does not require a prescription.

Knowing flu brain is a thing might not make it any easier. It will be a reminder to give yourself a little more time for big projects, problem solving and to be extra cautious when driving. It’s also a good reason to give your body what it needs to fight any battles and take good care of yourself. Who has time to miss a lot of work or to wander around looking for a box of tissues?


Cold’s “With My Mind”

The interaction between popular music and video games gets taken to the next level thanks to Midway and Cold.

Back in mid-2003 the video game company teamed up with the Jacksonville, Florida quintet (Jeremy Marshall, Kelly Hayes, Sam McCandless, Terry Balsamo, and Scooter Ward) to create some bristling original music for their upcoming stealth action game, Psi-Ops. “The music of Cold, packs a powerful punch to Midway’s cutting edge videogames,.” Said Helene Sheeler, vice president of marketing for Midway when asked about why Cold was a good fit with their upcoming game.
The video for “In My Mind,” the original song that Cold created specifically for Psi-Ops was shot over the period of a few days in a downtown Los Angeles Warehouse in the blistering heat of the summer of 2003. The music video was a cooperative effort between Midway and Cold in that both the game company and the band agreed upon not only the content of the video, but also the visual and atmospheric style.
The video was shot by Marc Webb, who was Cold’s first choice and preferred director. Webb, incidentally, also shot the video for Cold’s breakout hit “Stupid Girl” and has shot several other videos for the band, as well.
The video features scenes of the band, unleashing their patented emotional outbursts which are then interlaced with cut-scenes from the game, rendering the whole effort in an almost dystopian aura of doom and dread.
But hey, don’t take our word for it. Check out the video for yourself.


How to Cope with “Brain Fog” When You’re Chronically Ill


People who are chronically ill (which includes chronic pain) often experience cognitive difficulties. Sometimes this is referred to as “brain fog,” which is defined as a lack of mental clarity due to an inability to focus or remember things.

You may have trouble concentrating on the task at hand. You may have trouble with reading comprehension and find yourself going over the same paragraph several times (this can happen to me). You may have trouble remembering things—big and small (from where you left your cell phone, to what you watched on TV the night before, to the task you decided to undertake just moments before).

What follows are six strategies I’ve developed after almost 18 years of chronic illness to help me cope with cognitive dysfunction. I’m not a therapist, so my suggestions are based on my personal experience.

I’m fortunate that, at times, my mind is sharp enough to be able to write (and remember where I put things). That said, the strategies and suggestions that follow would be helpful for those of you whose cognitive dysfunction is a permanent feature (or side-effect as I like to call it) of your chronic illness.

#1: Don’t beat yourself up if you’re experiencing cognitive difficulties.

If your chronic illness causes brain fog, it’s not your fault, just as being sick or in pain in the first place is not your fault. Health problems are part and parcel of the human condition. Everyone faces pain and illness at some point during his or her life. I still get sad that chronic illness has so drastically limited what I can do and that I often experience cognitive dysfunction, especially the inability to concentrate and focus on things. But I’ve learned not to blame myself. Being sad and engaging in self-blame are different mental responses to chronic illness and its consequences. Sadness can (and hopefully does) give rise to self-compassion. Self-blame cannot.

#2: Start keeping a record of when your cognitive difficulties are the worse.

See if you can detect any patterns related to when cognitive dysfunction kicks in or becomes more intense. Is it at certain times of day? Is it after engaging in certain activities? Is it when you’re experiencing a flare in symptoms? (On this latter issue, see my article “7 Ways to Survive a Flare When You’re Chronically Ill”).

So, start paying attention to whether there are triggers for your brain fog. For me, one trigger is stress. Another is having overdone it the day before. I know that if it’s been a stressful day or if I’ve overdone it (which almost always sets off a flare), I have to find something else to do other than use my brain.

It’s been extremely helpful for me to learn what triggers cognitive difficulties for me. First, learning this has brought some predictability to my life; and second, it’s kept me from becoming frustrated about not being able to write or do other tasks that require concentration. I don’t get frustrated because, usually, I can point to a cause for my decreased ability to concentrate or write.

In other words, I can say to myself: “Look, you know that since you overdid it yesterday, this is not a day you’ll be able to write. That’s okay.” Pointing to a cause like this also reassures me that my cognitive faculties will improve when the stress dies down or when the flare dies down.

(Note: I recognize that, at times, cognitive difficulties arise for no rhyme or reason. When this happens to me I have no choice but to stop, for example, working on these articles. I’m not happy about it, but I can’t force my mind to be clear when it’s foggy.)

#3: If you’re experiencing brain fog, don’t try to memorize things or figure them out in your head. Instead, write them down.

If I need to use my brain at a time when it’s not functioning well, my best friend becomes pen and paper. When I can’t think straight (as the expression goes), it’s extremely helpful to keep track of things in writing. (Some of you may prefer to use a computer for this and that’s fine.) Writing down my thoughts instead of trying to memorize things or figure out a problem in my head actually improves my cognitive abilities. I think it’s because it calms my mind and this enables me to see things more clearly.

For example, if I have an upcoming doctor’s appointment (I’ve recently been seeing an orthopedist about knee and rotator cuff pain due to osteoarthritis) and I can’t concentrate enough to remember what I want to bring up, I make a list. Even though, as I begin the list, I can’t remember what I was intending to raise at the appointment, as soon as I remember one thing and write it down, I’m likely to remember the rest.

#4: Write down “pros and cons” before making decisions.

Years ago (meaning, before I got sick!) I served for several years as the dean of students at U.C. Davis’ law school. Students frequently sought my advice when they couldn’t make a decision, whether it be a relatively minor one (“should I stay in this class or drop it?”) or a major one (“should I stay in school or drop out?”).

I learned that the best way to help a student make a decision was to take a piece of paper, draw a line down the middle, and on one side list the “pros” of deciding, for example, to stay in school; and, on the other side, list the “cons” of doing so. Having students consider the issue this way almost always made it clear to them what the best decision was.

I use this same technique to cope with brain fog. If I can’t think clearly enough to make a decision, I pick up pen and paper, draw that vertical line down the middle, and start listing “pros” and “cons.”

#5: Break down big tasks into a series of tiny ones.

If you have something to do that’s going to require a lot of concentration, don’t attempt to do it all at once. Make a list of what’s involved and then spread the task out over as long a time as you can—even weeks if that’s possible. And if, on a given day, your brain fog is too intense to perform the part of the task that you allocated for that day, that’s fine. Just move it to the next day. Even if you have to keep moving things forward, eventually you’ll have a day when your brain is clear enough that you can make up for lost days by doing more than one part of the task on that day.

#6: Find a game that’s fun and gently challenges your mind.

I think of this as exercising my brain in order to help keep my cognitive abilities as strong as possible. For the first time ever, I’ve started playing a game on my smart phone. It’s called Wordscapes. I’m shown a set of letters and have to combine them to make words that then fill in crossword squares. Sometimes the letters are easy for me and sometimes they’re a real challenge. (One reason I like this game is that there’s no “timer,” meaning that I can go as slowly as I want, so it’s not stressful to play.)

If my cognitive difficulties are intense on a given day, I can’t play Wordscapes…and I accept that. I think, however, that playing it is helping to reduce the frequency and intensity of episodes of cognitive dysfunction. I suppose this comes under that heading of “use it or lose it” that I’m constantly hearing in regard to bodily exercise. (Now there’s a source of stress for me—always being told that I need to engage in strenuous exercise, which is impossible given my illness.) But I can gently exercise my brain!

I think of games such as Wordscapes, Scrabble, Boggle, and even jigsaw puzzles as “brain food.” Incorporating one or more of them into your life just might reduce the frequency and intensity of your brain fog.


I hope these strategies and suggestions have been helpful. From my foggy brain to yours, I send warmest good wishes.

Your Brain On: Cold and Flu

Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

A sick brain is a dumb brain. Well, a dumb-er brain anyway. Just as your body feels drowsy, achy, and drained of energy when you’re under the weather, your ill noodle suffers a Lloyd Christmas-esque drop-off in its ability to think, feel, learn, and react.

Here, researchers explain exactly how the common cold screws with your head:

The Moment You Become Sick

As soon as your body detects an invading bug, your immune system kicks into action and triggers the release of several specific types of cytokines, shows research from Concordia College in Minnesota. These small proteins perform a lot of different functions, but they’re basically your immune system’s messengers, alerting your central nervous system that you’re sick and need to mount a counter-attack.

Unfortunately, while they’re triggering your immune system’s defenses, cytokines also mess with your brain chemistry, explains Andrew Smith, Ph.D., a health researcher and psychologist at Cardiff University in the U.K. Research from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign shows your mood is one of the first things to change when you catch a cold. Both men and women tend to get pissy and quick-tempered and experience something psychologists refer to as “negative affect,” which is a fancy term for feeling crummy about yourself and life in general. (Related: 5 Easy Ways to Stay Cold- and Flu-Free.)

While You’re Fighting Off Your Cold

Smith’s experiments have found that the flood of illness-related chemicals in your head also screws with your mental performance, specifically alertness and reaction time. This may explain why people who are sick have problems behind the wheel. Compared to healthy drivers, sickies bump into more curbs and tailgate other vehicles while failing to detect collisions, according to another of Smith’s studies. (Help your body out with this guide to getting over a cold fast.)

Your ability to synthesize verbal information also falters, research suggest, while changes to the activity in your brain’s frontal lobes may lead to problems with your psychomotor functions, which includes coordination, strength, speed, and balance. There’s also evidence from a University of Southampton (U.K.) experiment that being sick jumbles your brain’s ability to store new information and memories. While people did fine on most memory tests, their performance suffered when it came to repeating tasks they’d learned while ill. (That means studying or learning a new job skill isn’t going to go well if you’re sick, the research hints.)

When You Feel Better

Thankfully, research shows most of your mental and psychological fogginess lifts along with your other cold symptoms. But, for reasons that science hasn’t figured out, your reaction time is still slower a week after your illness passes, Smith’s experiments have found.

Apart from killing your cold with lots of rest and plenty of fluids (and maybe trying these cold and flu home remedies), studies indicate there’s not much you can do to offset the unfortunate brain drain associated with your illness. But at least when it comes to your alertness, Smith offers one simple solution: caffeine. His research shows a little coffee or other caffeinated drink can help sharpen your brain even when you’re unwell.

  • By Markham Heid

Brain fog: Causes and tips

Various conditions can lead to brain fog.

Multiple sclerosis

People who live with MS may experience some changes in their ability to make decisions and to process and remember information.

These changes are usually mild to moderate and do not affect a person’s ability to live independently. However, they can lead to frustration and difficulty completing daily tasks, such as finding house keys or shopping for groceries.

Learn more here about MS.

Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome

Fibromyalgia causes pain throughout the body and can affect a person’s concentration and memory.

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is another chronic, or long-term, condition. It can result in severe tiredness and problems with thinking.

Depression and stress

Share on PinterestDepression can lead to a loss of concentration.

Depression is a serious mood disorder that affects how someone thinks and feels. Problems with memory, focus, and decision-making can contribute to the feeling of brain fog.

There may also be problems with sleeping and a lack of energy, which can make concentrating and completing tasks harder.

Stress and anxiety can also make it difficult to think clearly.

Iron deficiency anemia

If red blood cells cannot deliver enough oxygen to the body’s organs and tissues, a person may experience mental and physical tiredness and other symptoms, such as shortness of breath and brain fog.

Hormonal changes

Changes to a person’s hormone levels can affect their brain functioning, especially during pregnancy or menopause.

One small study from 2013 found that hormonal changes during the menopausal transition made it harder for women to take in and remember new information and to focus their attention on challenging tasks.

Hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s disease can lead to hormone imbalances. Memory and thinking problems that are similar to brain fog are common in thyroid disorders.

What is hypothyroidism? Learn more here.

Postural tachycardia syndrome

Some people experience unusual changes in heart rate and blood pressure when standing up, a condition doctors call postural tachycardia syndrome (POTS).

A study appearing in 2013 reported that adolescents with POTS said they often had symptoms of brain fog, such as confusion, forgetfulness, “cloudy” thinking, and difficulty focusing, thinking, and communicating.

Find out more here about POTS.

Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia can involve symptoms of brain fog.

Alzheimer’s happens when plaques of protein build up in a person’s brain. This buildup affects brain functioning, with various cognitive and other symptoms.

Learn more here about Alzheimer’s disease.

Sleep apnea

During sleep, the muscles in the back of the throat relax. Sometimes, this can lead to people having trouble breathing at night.

If a person has pauses in breathing at night that interfere with their sleep quality, they may have sleep apnea.

Treating sleep apnea may improve the brain fog that can result.


People with obesity may also experience brain fog. Scientists believe there may be a link between brain fog, obesity, and inflammation, which is a feature of obesity.


Some medications can affect an individual’s mental functioning.

These include:

  • chemotherapy drugs
  • sleeping pills
  • drugs for anxiety
  • some pain relief medications
  • statins
  • corticosteroids

People may wish to speak to a doctor about any adverse side effects they are experiencing from the medication they are taking. If the medication cannot be changed, a doctor can help the individual develop coping strategies for brain fog.

It’s that time of the year again, the semester starts, you’re getting the hang of your course load, and them BOOM! You get sick. Below are 3 tips to help you get through your illness while ensuring you don’t fall behind on coursework.

  1. Get organized and prioritize: When you’re sick you don’t have time to waste on tasks that are not adding value. Write down all your assignments and readings and rank them in order of importance. You may not be able to fully read everything, so consider choosing certain readings to skim.
  2. Pace yourself: While completing the important items on your list, make sure you leave enough time to rest in between. Sometimes this means working for 30 minutes and resting for 30 minutes. Find a pace that works for you and do not get discouraged if you cannot study for long periods of time. If you take this disciplined approach, you will get through your list and stay on the road to recovery! If you find that you cannot complete your assignments due to your illness, reach out to your professors and request extensions.
  3. Rest and care for yourself: The goal is to get back to full health as soon as possible. Do not overexert yourself by trying to keep the same pace you would otherwise have if you weren’t sick- this will only prolong your sickness. Think about other commitments that are not as pertinent, such as social and extracurricular activities, and minimize these until you are back to normal. Visit the Penn Health and Wellness site to see the options for medical care and to learn more about ways to stay healthy.

No one likes being sick, but prioritizing tasks, pacing yourself, and ensuring you get back to full health are three ways to mitigate falling behind in coursework.

Staff writer: Victoria Gill

One of the worst things in life is being sick. One of the second worst things in life is being sick during midterms or finals. As college students, we know how much effort and energy it takes to study for an exam that our grade depends on. The last thing we need to happen to us while we’re preparing for this exam is becoming sick. Recently, I was one of the many I know to catch the flu this season. Congestion, body aches, coughing, and nausea. All the things I wanted to feel during my studying (/sarcasm). During my recovery I made a list on how to survive being sick during, possibly, one of the worst times in the term. I hope none of you ever have to use this list.

1. Drink plenty of fluids.

Water, chicken noodle soup, tea, and gatorade are all great options to keep you hydrated. Unfortunately, beer and wine don’t count.

2. Don’t forget to eat.

Bland foods are good for the stomach while you’re sick. Oatmeal, toast with butter/jam/peanut butter/etc, bananas, and rice are all good options. Just be sure you’re eating enough to let your body to recover!

3. Take medicine.

Taking medicine while you’re sick is a good idea because not only will it help you feel better, but it can help you feel good enough to concentrate on your studies.

4. Rest.

Wrap yourself like a burrito and hang out in bed all day. I always tell people that if your professor allows a few unexcused absences, save them for when you’re sick, especially during winter term when you’re more likely to be sick. If your professor doesn’t fly with that always email letting them know when you’re sick. You may have to go to the Student Health Services to get a note if your professor requires it.

6. Make friends with people in your class.

Befriending someone in your class has many benefits but one of the best ones is when you’re sick and you need lecture notes. Strike up a conversation early in the term and swap emails/phone numbers. Don’t forget to return the favor by doing the same for them or buying them Dutch.

7. Have a laptop near by.

Since you’re wrapped up like a burrito, you’re going to need a laptop nearby to do important things like watching a series on netflix, browsing Pinterest, or actually studying for that test. Pull up Canvas and Quizlet on your browser and get to studying! It’s not like you’re going anywhere for a while.

8. Don’t leave your house.

Staying inside for the next few days will make you go insane but you don’t want to run the risk of getting others sick. Have your friends get you food, medicine, or whatever you need. If you do have to go out, be sure to bring plenty of tissues, cough drops, and always cover your cough!

If you continue to feel sick or need more than just cough drops be sure to contact the Plageman Student Health Center by calling (541) 737-9355. Open Monday – Friday (9am – 6pm), Saturday (10am – 3pm), Sunday closed. Now that you have the tools to kick that cold, use them! Being sick during midterms and finals sucks but with these tips you can survive it and stay healthy during the school year.

You look at your schedule. Classes from 9 am to 4 pm followed by extracurriculars, work, and a party. Within the first five minutes, you already find yourself exhausted—constant coughing and sneezing. It’s easy to overwork yourself in college. Here’s your guide to taking a break and getting better.

1. Don’t over-exert yourself. Seriously. That weekly club meeting? Skip it. That bar party Thursday night? Take a break. It is an absolute must that you give your body plenty of rest—the more you allow yourself to take a break, the faster you will recover.

2. Drink plenty of fluids. I recommend Gatorade, Naked juice, or hot tea. Anything that helps replenish electrolytes, has added nutrients, or soothes the throat. Fluids help loosen mucus and replace fever-lost fluids as well.

3. Email your professors. Attendance matters! Missing multiple classes can leave a bad impression on your professors. They may presume that you are irresponsible or think you believe their class isn’t important enough. Email your professor stating your illness and ask for critical information you may have missed in class. Be aware: some professors may have already outlined what to do in case of illness in their syllabus, so be watchful for that. They also may require a doctor’s note in the case of an extended absence.

4. Do simple work. I know what you’re thinking. “What? I’m sick!” You don’t have to be running around on campus or pulling all-nighters in the library, but my advice is to write a list of things you should be doing/are missing out on. This way, you can get back on top of things quickly when you’re better. And some of those tasks can probably be tackled in bed while you’re still sick. Anyone can send out a quick email and do some readings. Sleep when you need to sleep, but be semi-productive when you’re awake. You can do this in your dorm room!

5. But also … don’t become overwhelmed with the work you’re missing. So you took one day off? It’s not the end of the world. It’s much more important that you are physically and mentally well before you start becoming active again. Make a note of extremely important deadlines, but in the meantime, just do what you can!

6. Call your mom! Or dad! Or uncle! Or best friend! Really anyone! Everyone talks about being physically exhausted, but no one talks about the mental toll sickness takes on your health, especially if you live in a single room with no human contact. Calling someone you love or having someone there for you can lift up your spirits and give you the mindset you need to get better.

7. Practice healthy hygiene. Wash your hands before meals and in general. Take hot showers. Having hand sanitizer on the go is always a plus. It’s important you do not make others sick because of poor hygiene habits. And changing that shirt you’ve been sleeping in for three days will make you feel loads better.

8. SLEEP! Do I need to explain? Get some zZZzzzs in!

Remember, if you’re not well, you’re probably not performing well in class or extracurriculars. Take care!

It makes you feel better when you are sick

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