When we think of the symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19), we typically think of fever, cough and shortness of breath. However, a few recent reports have shown some patients are experiencing neurological impairments as well. While this is rare and not typical in most patients who contract COVID-19, some neurological effects that have been reported include loss of smell and taste, headaches, disorientation, strokes, seizures, and brain swelling, as well as tingling or numbness in the extremities.
Because COVID-19 is a new virus, it is too early to make definitive statements on how COVID-19 affects the neurological system. People should keep in mind that most COVID-19 patients will not experience any abnormal neurological conditions. The early reports of patients exhibiting neurological conditions are more commonly seen in severely ill patients.
Like the flu, COVID-19 is a virus and can cause a type of inflammation in the brain. This is called encephalitis and can lead to a range of symptoms from simple confusion to being in a coma. It is not uncommon for elderly patients who contract a virus or other infections to become disoriented and confused. In more severe cases, the brain can become severely damaged and cause neurological impairments. A rare complication is a condition called acute necrotizing encephalopathy,. which has been reported in some COVID-19 patients. It is clear that COVID-19 affects the brain and although most neurological impairments will be mild, patients, caregivers and healthcare professions need to be aware of them.
When caring for a COVID-19 family member at home, the CDC lists “new confusion or inability to arouse” as a potential warning sign of when to seek medical care. People who have damage or disease that affects the brain are typically confused, dazed, lethargic and may stare off into space. These patients may be experiencing seizures that require immediate treatment. It is important to note as a caregiver that while fever may cause patients to not feel well, they should be able to answer questions and hold a conversation. The inability to do so should be a warning sign that medical care may be required. Obvious signs of stroke, such as slurred or incorrect speech, weakness or loss of sensation on a particular side of the body, facial droop, or sudden changes in vision, require immediate medical attention.
While much is still unknown about the neurological symptoms caused by COVID-19, physicians from across the world are on a fact-finding mission and have been documenting neurological conditions in their patients. Doctors in Italy have reported that some patients were delirious before showing the common symptoms of COVID-19. They were often taken to the hospital for exhibiting an altered mental state and ended up testing positive for COVID-19. It is important that doctors recognize the possibility that patients without the typical respiratory signs may have COVID-19 and take precautions to protect themselves and others from the spread of the virus.
If you or a family member is starting to display neurological complications, you should contact your medical provider immediately. Continue to take all necessary steps to keep yourself safe from viruses.
The information in this blog post is accurate at the time of publication. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to change, it's possible that information has changed since being published. While Ochsner Health is trying to keep our blog posts as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations by using the CDC website.