Can Covid-19 Harm Your Brain?

As many of half of patients with severe Covid-19 may experience cognitive symptoms, including dizziness and headaches, new research suggests.

At the beginning of the pandemic there was a short list of Covid-19 symptoms: Fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Today, that list has grown. Now it seems there is an entire suite of neurological effects that may even pop up as the earliest symptoms—even before that telltale terrible cough.

A review of world literature, published in June in the Annals of Neurology, looked at the neurologic symptoms that can be caused by a Covid-19 infection. These are wide-ranging and include headaches, dizziness, alteration of consciousness, a decrease in smell and taste, muscle weakness, muscle pain, strokes, and seizures, says study co-author Igor Koralnik, MD, chief of neuro-infectious disease and global neurology in the department of neurology at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

“Based on data coming mainly from China and Europe, neurologic manifestations occur in about half of hospitalized Covid-19 patients,” Dr. Koralnik says.

3d illustration of the human brainyodiyim/Getty Images

What’s happening in your brain?

So how does the infection make its mark on the brain? There are many possibilities. Don’t forget that if you’re coughing and struggling to breathe, the other organs in your body are deprived of oxygen, too. This lack of oxygen, as well as a spike in inflammation, can affect the nervous system and brain, leading to problems like confusion, explains Dr. Koralnik.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus can also invade the brain and its protective membranes, causing viral meningitis. An autoimmune reaction (when the body essentially attacks itself) can flare, attacking the brain.

Finally, there’s also the chance that the infection could contribute to a clotting disorder, and directly lead to a stroke, he says. Stroke has been found to be more common in patients with severe infections compared with those with milder illness, according to a study that looked at patients in Wuhan, China, and was published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, & Psychiatry. (Here’s what doctors want you to know about coronavirus and stroke risk.)

How long will the symptoms last?

Covid-19 is no doubt deadly. More than 105,000 people in the United States have died from Covid-19 as of June 19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, the majority of people recover from the infection. When it comes to neurological symptoms, there’s no guarantee that these problems disappear when the illness does.

“Since the pandemic started only six months ago, there’s no knowledge beyond this [time period],” says Dr. Koralnik. Milder problems, like headaches and dizziness, may diminish, but if damage led to a stroke or seizures, the effects may be long-lasting or permanent.

What’s most important, says Dr. Koralnik, is the knowledge that cognitive problems like dizziness or loss of smell may be among the first symptoms to appear when someone becomes ill with Covid-19. That means you shouldn’t discount weird or “off” changes in your health or assume you can’t have Covid-19 if you feel confused or are delirious but aren’t coughing.

Talk to your doctor, consider getting tested or isolating and do your part to prevent spreading a possible infection to friends, family, and members of your community.

Sources
Medically reviewed by Renata Chalfin, MD, on August 13, 2020