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Brain fog

8-minute read

Key facts

  • 'Brain fog' is a term people use to describe problems with thinking and memory.
  • It may include forgetting things, having difficulty concentrating or struggling to find the right word.
  • Brain fog can have many causes, such as poor sleep, stress, menopause or long COVID.
  • You can improve the symptoms of brain fog by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and keeping your brain active.
  • There are many tips you can try that make thinking and remembering easier.

What is brain fog?

'Brain fog' is a term people use to describe how they feel when they have problems with thinking and memory. Doctors and other health professionals might call it 'cognitive dysfunction' or 'cognitive impairment'.

Brain fog is not a health condition on its own, but it can occur with several health conditions. It is not the same as dementia or delirium.

It is very common — for example, it affects almost 2 in 3 females going through menopause and up to 3 in 4 people having cancer treatment.

What are the symptoms of brain fog?

Symptoms of brain fog include:

  • forgetting things — such as names or dates or why you walked into a particular room
  • difficulty focusing and thinking clearly
  • difficulty concentrating for as long as you could in the past
  • not being able to find the exact word you wanted to say
  • having trouble with multitasking (doing more than one thing at a time)
  • difficulty understanding new information, such as following directions or learning something new
  • finding it hard to plan activities and solve problems

Symptoms of brain fog usually come and go, but they can be very frustrating. They can affect your daily activities, performance at school or work, self-esteem and relationships with people close to you. It can be helpful to talk to your family, friends and colleagues about the difficulties you are experiencing, so they understand how it may be affecting you.

You might find that your symptoms go away with time, for example, if your brain fog has come with menopause or cancer treatment. If your brain fog is caused by an underlying condition, it may be improved with treatment.

What causes brain fog?

Brain fog can be caused by:

  • not getting enough sleep or exercise
  • eating a diet that does not include all the vitamins and minerals you need
  • stress
  • menopause
  • taking certain medicines, such as for arthritis or cancer

There has been more awareness about brain fog in the last few years because it is one of the main symptoms of long COVID. However, it can also be caused by other health conditions, such as:

Different health conditions cause brain fog in different ways. For example, in menopause it may be caused by changes in levels of hormones, such as oestrogen. In MS, it may be caused by damage to the layer of myelin that protects nerve cells. In long COVID, cancer and other health conditions it may be caused by inflammation. The exact cause is not always understood.

When should I see my doctor?

Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing frequent symptoms of brain fog, or if your symptoms are interfering with your work or daily activities.

Sometimes, people with brain fog become worried that they may be developing dementia. If this is making you anxious, talk to your doctor about it. Brain fog is not the same as dementia or delirium, and your doctor can help you understand the reasons for your symptoms.

How is brain fog diagnosed?

There is no test to diagnose whether or not you have brain fog. Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and how they are affecting you. Before your appointment, you might want to write down a list of symptoms to help you explain to your doctor how you are feeling.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

Your doctor may refer you for blood tests and a scan of your brain to check what is causing your symptoms. The tests might show a cause of brain fog that can be treated, such as diabetes or anaemia.

If you are worried about dementia, your doctor might arrange for you to have neuropsychological testing. This is a way of testing your brain to check for dementia. People with brain fog usually have normal results.

How is brain fog treated?

Some people have an underlying cause for brain fog that can be treated. For example, if you have anaemia you might be prescribed iron tablets, or if you are taking a medicine that causes brain fog, your doctor might switch you to a different medicine.

Even if there is no treatable cause, there are things you can do to improve your symptoms.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle

Lifestyle strategies can be very helpful, such as:

  • getting plenty of sleep — you can improve your sleep by having a bedtime routine and avoiding phones and screens close to bedtime
  • exercising regularly
  • eating a healthy diet that includes a wide variety of fruit and vegetables and drinking plenty of water
  • avoiding smoking and limiting alcohol
  • reducing stress by using techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, relaxation or yoga
  • keeping your brain active by doing puzzles, learning a new skill or doing something creative
  • spending time with other people

Think about which situations make your brain fog worse and try to avoid them when you can, for example, crowded or noisy environments.

Tips to improve your thinking and memory

Here are some techniques you can use to make thinking easier:

  • Put together a daily routine, so you know what you need to do when.
  • Do one thing at a time — don't try to multitask.
  • When you need to focus, try to avoid distractions by finding a quiet place and turning off your phone.
  • Divide big tasks into several smaller tasks, and work on them one at a time.
  • Pick a time early in the day, when you have more energy, to do tasks that require a lot of thinking.
  • If you are finding it hard to concentrate, take a break and try again later.
  • If you can't think of the exact word you want to say, choose a different word that gets your meaning across.

Here are some memory aids you can use if you have trouble remembering things:

  • Use a diary, make lists or set phone reminders to help you remember what you need to do and which appointments or activities you have on.
  • Put your medicines in a dosing box, or ask your pharmacist to help you find the right dosing aid for you.
  • Choose a place to always put important objects, such as your keys.

If you are still struggling despite using these techniques, talk to your doctor. They may refer you to an allied health professional who can help, such as a speech therapist, occupational therapist or neuropsychologist.

Resources and support

If you feel you have brain fog, talk to your doctor for help, or call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 at any time to speak to a registered nurse (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria) for more information and advice.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2024

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