The next time you walk into a room and forget why you’re there, you can feel comforted knowing that somewhere else, someone is also saying, “What was I doing?”
These moments of forgetfulness are normal, but when they happen throughout the day, you might be experiencing what’s commonly known as brain fog.
“Brain fog is not a medical term,” says Dr. Ny-Ying Lam, a physiatrist at UW Medicine who focuses on neurorehabilitation, “but often how individuals describe their cognitive symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness and lack of mental clarity. People may be easily distracted or overwhelmed by tasks.”
What causes brain fog?
There are a variety of reasons why you might be experiencing brain fog, such as lack of sleep, stress or side effects from medications. Your physical and mental health could also influence how cloudy your head feels.
“Health conditions like fibromyalgia, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, depression, anemia, pregnancy, menopause and hypothyroidism can cause brain fog,” says Lam. “Autoimmune diseases like lupus and multiple sclerosis can also cause brain fog, as can cancer, chemotherapy and other cancer treatments.”
Recently, there has been an increasing link between brain fog and COVID-19. While some who catch the virus may heal with little to no noticeable lasting effects, others are left with symptoms under the brain fog umbrella.
“SARS-CoV-2 has the potential to cause neuroinflammation in the central nervous system, but there are many different theories still being studied about why brain fog develops in some patients after COVID-19 infection,” says Lam. “This is one of the symptoms of long-COVID.”
Yes, we know — that can be a lot to process, especially if you’re reading this because you’re experiencing brain fog. What’s most important to understand is that your body and your health play a crucial role in how sharp your cognitive function is.
When you are tired, so is your brain. This can cause these periods of mental fatigue and be the reason why focusing on your usual tasks has become a little more challenging.
Is brain fog dangerous?
It can be scary to suddenly experience a bout of forgetfulness, confusion or difficulty concentrating. But don’t worry — having brain fog isn’t dangerous in and of itself. Lam says that it’s not an indicator that you’ll develop worsening cognitive function over time.
However, it might be time to go to a doctor if your brain fog significantly impacts your day-to-day life.
“If your symptoms are affecting your daily function at home, work or school, it may be helpful to see your doctor who can help pinpoint the specific reasons why you’re experiencing brain fog,” says Lam. “Your doctor may also prescribe cognitive therapy with a speech-language pathologist to review adaptive strategies to manage your symptoms.”
Is there a cure for brain fog?
Having brain fog in any capacity can be frustrating, confusing and isolating. While it may require your loved ones and peers to have a little more patience with you, it’s most important to have a little more patience with yourself.
Here’s how Lam suggests dissipating the fog:
- Optimize your brain health and overall energy levels to increase your cognitive reserve, or your brain’s resistance to damage. This includes improving your sleep, exercising regularly, addressing any medical causes of fatigue and treating any headache or pain symptoms.
- Avoid substances such as alcohol or other drugs that can hamper brain function.
- Use strategies like setting reminders on your phone, organizing your day with a calendar and taking notes to keep track of information.
Learning what works best for you might take time and support from your loved ones or doctor, especially if medications or other treatments are involved. But it’s possible to find some relief from your symptoms — and, don’t worry, we’ll be here if you need a reminder.