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Long flu may be more harmful to the brain than COVID

A new study from the University of Michigan has found that people hospitalized with severe flu infections may face a higher risk of long-term brain damage than those who were hospitalized with COVID.

We often see flu as a mere inconvenience – a week of misery, and then it’s over. But the findings of the research suggest that the flu’s shadow might extend far longer than we thought.

Long Flu vs. Long COVID

The concepts of “long flu” and “long COVID” are relatively new but undeniably concerning. These lingering conditions can appear in some individuals after the initial viral infection fades, leaving behind a constellation of debilitating symptoms.

Brain fog, persistent headaches, crushing fatigue, and changes in mood are shared hallmarks of both syndromes.

So, why are we only now starting to recognize the potential severity of these long-term effects? It’s partly because these conditions are complex and challenging to diagnose. Their symptoms overlap with other health problems, making it difficult to pinpoint the root cause.

Comparing Risks

Hoping to shed light on the neurological impact of flu and COVID, University of Michigan researchers conducted a large-scale study. They delved into the medical records of over 77,000 patients, comparing the risk of six common neurological disorders in those who were hospitalized with flu or COVID.

The scientists tracked patients hospitalized with COVID between March 2020 and November 2021. They compared this data to records of patients hospitalized with flu before 2020 (to avoid misattributing flu cases to COVID).

It’s important to remember that this study focused on severe cases requiring hospitalization. Milder infections may carry different risks.

Long flu and brain damage

Severe flu might leave a longer-lasting impact on the brain than a comparably severe COVID infection.

The study reveals that patients hospitalized with the flu were nearly twice as likely to seek medical help for neurological problems in the year after their illness compared to those hospitalized with COVID.

This includes a 44% increased chance of needing treatment for nerve pain, a 35% higher likelihood of battling persistent migraines, and up to a 10% greater risk of needing care for stroke or dementia.

Long flu risks: Inflammation and beyond

The question is, why might the flu pose a greater long-term risk to the brain than COVID? While the research is ongoing, here’s what we know:


Both flu and COVID can cause widespread inflammation throughout the body. This inflammation can harm blood vessels, including those within the brain, potentially setting the stage for complications.

Direct brain invasion

In some cases, these viruses can directly infect the brain, leading to encephalitis (brain swelling).

Autoimmune confusion

These infections may trigger autoimmune reactions, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks nerves.

Insights from the findings

“While the results were not what we expected to find, they are reassuring in that we found being hospitalized with COVID did not lead to more care for common neurological conditions when compared to being hospitalized with influenza,” explained lead researcher, Dr. Brian Callaghan.

This study underscores the importance of protecting our brains – not just from COVID but from a wide range of illnesses. Here’s what you can do:

Vaccinate for long flu and COVID-19

Flu and COVID-19 vaccines significantly reduce your risk of severe illness and long-term complications.

Don’t delay your treatments

Seek prompt medical care if you experience a severe infection of any kind. Early intervention can be a game-changer, significantly affecting the outcome.

Healthy brain habits

  • Regular exercise: Exercise fuels your brain. It ramps up blood flow, stimulating new brain cell growth and strengthening connections. Aim for regular physical activity to protect your brainpower.
  • Balanced diet: Load up on fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins. These powerhouses deliver essential brain-boosting nutrients, including those amazing omega-3 fatty acids found in fish.
  • Adequate sleep: Don’t skimp on sleep. While you rest, your brain clears away toxins, strengthens memories, and resets your mood. Consistent, restful sleep is crucial for a thriving brain.
  • Stress management: Chronic stress is a brain-drain. It weakens memory, disrupts your mood, and can even increase your risk of brain diseases. Find healthy ways to unwind, whether it’s meditation, a relaxing hobby, or spending time in nature.

The study is published in the journal Neurology.


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