Neurological symptoms can be present even after recovering.
Sept. 18, 2020 — 6:00 a.m. EST
In all of my years of suffering from migraines, I’ve never had any quite like the ones I had during — and after — COVID-19. To say they were relentless and debilitating is to put it lightly. They kept me up all night. COVID-19 made me dizzy and clumsy. My muscles ached, and my sense of taste and smell were dulled to the point that it seemed even pointless to eat food. Then there was the brain fog and an endless loop of absentmindedness. Some of the things I forgot were of little consequence, such as what I’d just written in a text to a friend. But other times my forgetfulness could have led to accidents that would have impacted the rest of my life.
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One night, I nearly burned off my hand. I lit a burner on my stove to boil water for tea. Then I decided to start cleaning up my kitchen, including the top of the stove. Only a few moments had passed, but I had already completely forgotten that the burner was on and nearly stuck my entire hand with the sponge into the open flame.
We’re now nine months into this global pandemic, and there is a large (and continually growing body of research) that indicates the novel coronavirus affects the brain and central nervous system. Recent studies find the virus crosses the protective cells and membrane that surrounds the brain (known as the blood-brain barrier) and replicates there. Some research suggests in the period of recovery after an acute illness, the immune system is so ramped up that it keeps working in overdrive, resulting in inflammation to the brain that alters some neurological functioning.
I’m a perfect example of this; my neurological symptoms from the novel coronavirus didn’t go away after I recovered from the virus, they got worse. In July, I wrote for Elemental about how COVID-19 assaulted my brain during illness, but also long after when the rest of my body had already recovered.
We’re still learning so much about how this virus influences short- and long-term brain health. Doctors don’t completely understand what’s happening. In my own case, the brain fog and other neurological symptoms finally went away six weeks after I recovered from the virus. For other long-haul patients who have recovered from COVID-19, the neurological symptoms can endure for much longer.
If you currently have COVID-19 or recently had it, you should pay close attention to any new neurological symptoms. If you feel less mentally sharp, have lapses in memory, find yourself having problems with physical coordination (such as tripping or dropping items), notice mood changes, experience migraines, muscle aches, fatigue and persistent loss of smell or taste then you need to take these symptoms seriously. Here are some ways you can take care of yourself and hopefully facilitate a recovery.
- Connect with a neurologist. The pandemic has forced doctors to figure out how to treat their patients from a distance, and that includes neurologists. My neurologist was actually able to perform a neurological exam via telemedicine and see how severe my symptoms were and also figure out what drugs to prescribe for my migraines. In some cases, long-haul patients with neurological symptoms are going on neurological or psychiatric drugs, even temporarily. A neurologist should evaluate you to determine the right options and also whether you need medical tests such as an MRI or EEG.
- Contact your existing neurologist if you have one. If you are someone with a pre-existing neurological condition, it’s wise to let your regular specialist know that you have (or had) COVID-19. Your neurologist may recommend you schedule an appointment to make sure that the virus didn’t impact your existing neurological condition. I have epilepsy and COVID-19 precipitated many neurological symptoms I hadn’t experienced in close to a decade, so being in touch with him was invaluable.
- Remember, unfortunately, you are still sick. The brain is a complicated organ that actually takes longer to heal than many other parts of the body. Quite possibly the best approach is to behave as if you have recently sustained a concussion (you don’t have one, but your symptoms warrant the same level of gentle care). The typical protocol for a head injury is plenty of rest and limiting physical activity and stimuli and a lot of TLC.
- Watch what you eat and drink. Make sure to eat plenty of brain-healthy foods (think salmon, avocado, berries, kale, and nuts). Definitely avoid alcohol and stay hydrated with plenty of water.
- Ask your friends and family for help. If you notice your coordination is off or you feel unsteady or unbalanced, you’re forgetting things and your head hurts then avoid doing activities that could put you at risk for injuries and accidents. This might include something as simple as unloading glasses from the dishwasher that you could drop or potentially more dangerous like driving a car or riding your bike.
- Get plenty of sleep. Talk with a doctor about sleep. If you are suffering from insomnia (either due to anxiety or the neurological symptoms themselves) then you absolutely need to address the problem. We know that deep sleep is essential to brain health and recovering from any illness — especially COVID-19.