AARP Eye Center
Jamie Colvin-Choate thought she was tied to a bed while bugs crawled over her, that she heard her friends plotting against her, and that, at 65, she'd just had a baby — all while hospitalized for a severe COVID-19 infection last summer.
Colvin-Choate nearly died twice, had a tracheotomy and a feeding tube inserted, and was put into a medically induced coma. But she counts the hallucinations she suffered, and “having to decipher what was real and what wasn't after I came through,” as the hardest part of her ordeal.
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When Drew Murrie, hospitalized for COVID-19, woke up in the ICU last spring, he remembered vivid images of being stuck in a cave stacked with skeletons, of electric butterflies flying around the room and, at one terrifying moment, of a human hand covering his face while he was in bed. “I had never had visions like this before,” says Murrie, 59, who lives with his family in the Chicago suburbs. “I had no idea what was going on.”
According to a recent review of studies in Psychology Research and Behavior Management, COVID-19 infections have been triggering such hallucinations, as well as things like delusions and paranoia in patients with no history of mental health issues. Such temporary symptoms of psychosis have become yet another surprising effect the virus has on the brain. In some patients, hallucinations may be part of the delirium that accompanies a long COVID-19 illness or hospital stay; in others, these visions can occur on their own. A study released this week and conducted at the Northwestern Medicine health system showed that up to one-third of hospitalized patients showed “altered mental function,” a term that includes things like delusions, as well as confusion and unresponsiveness. (Unlike hallucinations, however, these neurological symptoms can have a long-term impact.)
It's not fully understood why this happens, but one idea is that patients with severe COVID-19 infection “may have a little brain damage from chronically low levels of oxygen going to the brain, due to COVID causing the lungs not to oxygenate the blood as well,” explains Pravin George, a staff neurointensivist at Cleveland Clinic. “It could also be that COVID itself is attacking the brain directly in certain patients.”