Delirium2018-09-27T13:33:47+00:00

Delirium

Delirium

Delirium

Delirium is a serious disturbance in mental abilities that results in confused thinking and reduced awareness of your environment. The start of delirium is usually rapid — within hours or a few days.

Delirium can often be traced to one or more contributing factors, such as a severe or chronic medical illness, changes in your metabolic balance (such as low sodium), medication, infection, surgery, or alcohol or drug withdrawal.

Because symptoms of delirium and dementia can be similar, input from a family member or caregiver may be important for a doctor to make an accurate diagnosis.

Symptoms of Delirium:

Signs and symptoms of delirium usually begin over a few hours or a few days. They often fluctuate throughout the day, and there may be periods of no symptoms. Symptoms tend to be worse during the night when it’s dark and things look less familiar. Primary signs and symptoms include those below.

Reduced awareness of the environment

This may result in:

  • An inability to stay focused on a topic or to switch topics
  • Getting stuck on an idea rather than responding to questions or conversation
  • Being easily distracted by unimportant things
  • Being withdrawn, with little or no activity or little response to the environment

Poor thinking skills (cognitive impairment)

This may appear as:

  • Poor memory, particularly of recent events
  • Disorientation, for example, not knowing where you are or who you are
  • Difficulty speaking or recalling words
  • Rambling or nonsense speech
  • Trouble understanding speech
  • Difficulty reading or writing

Behavior changes

This may include:

  • Seeing things that don’t exist (hallucinations)
  • Restlessness, agitation or combative behavior
  • Calling out, moaning or making other sounds
  • Being quiet and withdrawn — especially in older adults
  • Slowed movement or lethargy
  • Disturbed sleep habits
  • Reversal of night-day sleep-wake cycle

Emotional disturbances

This may appear as:

  • Anxiety, fear or paranoia
  • Depression
  • Irritability or anger
  • A sense of feeling elated (euphoria)
  • Apathy
  • Rapid and unpredictable mood shifts
  • Personality changes

Types of Delirium:

Experts have identified three types of delirium:

  • Hyperactive delirium. Probably the most easily recognized type, this may include restlessness (for example, pacing), agitation, rapid mood changes or hallucinations.
  • Hypoactive delirium. This may include inactivity or reduced motor activity, sluggishness, abnormal drowsiness or seeming to be in a daze.
  • Mixed delirium. This includes both hyperactive and hypoactive symptoms. The person may quickly switch back and forth from hyperactive to hypoactive states.

Delirium and Dementia

Dementia and delirium may be particularly difficult to distinguish, and a person may have both. In fact, frequently delirium occurs in people with dementia.

Dementia is the progressive decline of memory and other thinking skills due to the gradual dysfunction and loss of brain cells. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.

Some differences between the symptoms of delirium and dementia include:

  • Onset. The onset of delirium occurs within a short time, while dementia usually begins with relatively minor symptoms that gradually worsen over time.
  • Attention. The ability to stay focused or maintain attention is significantly impaired with delirium. A person in the early stages of dementia remains generally alert.
  • Fluctuation. The appearance of delirium symptoms can fluctuate significantly and frequently throughout the day. While people with dementia have better and worse times of day, their memory and thinking skills stay at a fairly constant level during the course of a day.

Causes of Delirium:

Delirium occurs when the normal sending and receiving of signals in the brain become impaired. This impairment is most likely caused by a combination of factors that make the brain vulnerable and trigger a malfunction in brain activity.

Delirium may have a single cause or more than one cause, such as a medical condition and medication toxicity. Sometimes no cause can be identified.

Possible causes include:

  • Certain medications or drug toxicity
  • Alcohol or drug abuse or withdrawal
  • A medical condition
  • Metabolic imbalances, such as low sodium or low calcium
  • Severe, chronic or terminal illness
  • Fever and acute infection, particularly in children
  • Exposure to a toxin
  • Malnutrition or dehydration
  • Sleep deprivation or severe emotional distress
  • Pain
  • Surgery or other medical procedures that include anesthesia

Several medications or combinations of drugs can trigger delirium, including some types of:

  • Pain drugs
  • Sleep medications
  • Medications for mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression
  • Allergy medications (antihistamines)
  • Parkinson’s disease drugs
  • Drugs for treating spasms or convulsions
  • Asthma medications

Risk factors for Delirium:

Any condition that results in a hospital stay, especially in intensive care or after surgery, increases the risk of delirium, as does being a resident in a nursing home.

Examples of other conditions that increase the risk of delirium include:

  • Brain disorders such as dementia, stroke or Parkinson’s disease
  • Older age
  • Previous delirium episodes
  • Visual or hearing impairment
  • Having multiple medical problems

Delirium Complications:

Delirium may last only a few hours or as long as several weeks or months. If issues contributing to delirium are addressed, the recovery time is often shorter.

The degree of recovery depends to some extent on the health and mental status before the onset of delirium. People with dementia, for example, may experience a significant overall decline in memory and thinking skills. People in better health are more likely to fully recover.

People with other serious, chronic or terminal illnesses may not regain the levels of thinking skills or functioning that they had before the onset of delirium.

Delirium in seriously ill people is also more likely to lead to:

  • General decline in health
  • Poor recovery from surgery
  • Need for institutional care
  • Increased risk of death, especially with hypoactive delirium

Diagnosing Delirium:

A doctor will diagnose delirium based on medical history, tests to assess mental status and the identification of possible contributing factors.

An examination may include:

  • Mental status assessment. A doctor starts by assessing awareness, attention and thinking. This may be done informally through conversation, or with tests or screenings that assess mental state, confusion, perception and memory.
  • Physical and neurological exams. The doctor performs a physical exam, checking for signs of health problems or underlying disease. A neurological exam — checking vision, balance, coordination and reflexes — can help determine if a stroke or another neurological disease is causing the delirium.
  • Other possible tests. The doctor may order blood, urine and other diagnostic tests. Brain-imaging tests may be used when a diagnosis can’t be made with other available information.

Treatment of Delirium:

The first goal of treatment for delirium is to address any underlying causes or triggers — for example, by stopping use of a particular medication or treating an infection. Treatment then focuses on creating the best environment for healing the body and calming the brain.

Supportive care aims to prevent complications by:

  • Protecting the airway
  • Providing fluids and nutrition
  • Assisting with movement
  • Treating pain
  • Addressing incontinence
  • Avoiding use of physical restraints and bladder tubes
  • Avoiding changes in surroundings and caregivers when possible
  • Encouraging the involvement of family members or familiar people

Medications for Delirium can include:

Talk with the doctor about avoiding or minimizing the use of drugs that may trigger delirium. Certain medications may be needed to control pain that’s causing delirium.

Other types of drugs may help calm a person who misinterprets the environment in a way that leads to severe paranoia, fear or hallucinations, and when severe agitation or confusion occurs.

These drugs may be needed when certain behaviors:

  • Prevent the performance of a medical exam or treatment
  • Endanger the person or threaten the safety of others
  • Don’t lessen with non-drug treatments

These medications are usually reduced in dose or discontinued when the delirium resolves.

Coping with Delirium:

If you’re a relative or caregiver of someone at risk of or recovering from delirium, you can take steps to help improve the person’s health, prevent a recurrence and manage responsibilities.

Coping and Support

Promote good sleep habits by:

  • Provide a calm, quiet environment
  • Keep inside lighting appropriate for the time of day
  • Plan for uninterrupted periods of sleep at night
  • Help the person keep a regular daytime schedule
  • Encourage self-care and activity during the day

Promote calmness and orientation

To help the person remain calm and well-oriented:

  • Provide a clock and calendar and refer to them regularly throughout the day
  • Communicate simply about any change in activity, such as time for lunch or time for bed
  • Keep familiar and favorite objects and pictures around, but avoid a cluttered environment
  • Approach the person calmly
  • Identify yourself or other people regularly
  • Avoid arguments
  • Use comfort measures, such as reassuring touch, when appropriate
  • Keep noise levels and other distractions to a minimum
  • Provide and maintain eyeglasses and hearing aids

Prevent complicating problems

Help prevent medical problems by:

  • Giving the person the proper medication on a regular schedule
  • Providing plenty of fluids and a healthy diet
  • Encouraging regular physical activity
  • Getting treatment for potential problems, such as infection or metabolic imbalances, early

Caring for the caregiver

Providing regular care for a person with delirium can be scary and exhausting. Take care of yourself, too.

  • Consider joining a support group for caregivers.
  • Learn more about the condition.
  • Ask for educational materials or other resources from a health care provider, nonprofit organizations, community health services or government agencies.
  • Share caregiving with family and friends who are familiar the person so you get a break.

Examples of organizations that may provide helpful information include the National Family Caregivers Association and the National Institute on Aging.

Symptoms of Delirium:

Signs and symptoms of delirium usually begin over a few hours or a few days. They often fluctuate throughout the day, and there may be periods of no symptoms. Symptoms tend to be worse during the night when it’s dark and things look less familiar. Primary signs and symptoms include those below.

Reduced awareness of the environment

This may result in:

  • An inability to stay focused on a topic or to switch topics
  • Getting stuck on an idea rather than responding to questions or conversation
  • Being easily distracted by unimportant things
  • Being withdrawn, with little or no activity or little response to the environment

Poor thinking skills (cognitive impairment)

This may appear as:

  • Poor memory, particularly of recent events
  • Disorientation, for example, not knowing where you are or who you are
  • Difficulty speaking or recalling words
  • Rambling or nonsense speech
  • Trouble understanding speech
  • Difficulty reading or writing

Behavior changes

This may include:

  • Seeing things that don’t exist (hallucinations)
  • Restlessness, agitation or combative behavior
  • Calling out, moaning or making other sounds
  • Being quiet and withdrawn — especially in older adults
  • Slowed movement or lethargy
  • Disturbed sleep habits
  • Reversal of night-day sleep-wake cycle

Emotional disturbances

This may appear as:

  • Anxiety, fear or paranoia
  • Depression
  • Irritability or anger
  • A sense of feeling elated (euphoria)
  • Apathy
  • Rapid and unpredictable mood shifts
  • Personality changes

Types of Delirium:

Experts have identified three types of delirium:

  • Hyperactive delirium. Probably the most easily recognized type, this may include restlessness (for example, pacing), agitation, rapid mood changes or hallucinations.
  • Hypoactive delirium. This may include inactivity or reduced motor activity, sluggishness, abnormal drowsiness or seeming to be in a daze.
  • Mixed delirium. This includes both hyperactive and hypoactive symptoms. The person may quickly switch back and forth from hyperactive to hypoactive states.

Delirium and Dementia

Dementia and delirium may be particularly difficult to distinguish, and a person may have both. In fact, frequently delirium occurs in people with dementia.

Dementia is the progressive decline of memory and other thinking skills due to the gradual dysfunction and loss of brain cells. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.

Some differences between the symptoms of delirium and dementia include:

  • Onset. The onset of delirium occurs within a short time, while dementia usually begins with relatively minor symptoms that gradually worsen over time.
  • Attention. The ability to stay focused or maintain attention is significantly impaired with delirium. A person in the early stages of dementia remains generally alert.
  • Fluctuation. The appearance of delirium symptoms can fluctuate significantly and frequently throughout the day. While people with dementia have better and worse times of day, their memory and thinking skills stay at a fairly constant level during the course of a day.

Causes of Delirium:

Delirium occurs when the normal sending and receiving of signals in the brain become impaired. This impairment is most likely caused by a combination of factors that make the brain vulnerable and trigger a malfunction in brain activity.

Delirium may have a single cause or more than one cause, such as a medical condition and medication toxicity. Sometimes no cause can be identified.

Possible causes include:

  • Certain medications or drug toxicity
  • Alcohol or drug abuse or withdrawal
  • A medical condition
  • Metabolic imbalances, such as low sodium or low calcium
  • Severe, chronic or terminal illness
  • Fever and acute infection, particularly in children
  • Exposure to a toxin
  • Malnutrition or dehydration
  • Sleep deprivation or severe emotional distress
  • Pain
  • Surgery or other medical procedures that include anesthesia

Several medications or combinations of drugs can trigger delirium, including some types of:

  • Pain drugs
  • Sleep medications
  • Medications for mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression
  • Allergy medications (antihistamines)
  • Parkinson’s disease drugs
  • Drugs for treating spasms or convulsions
  • Asthma medications

Risk factors for Delirium:

Any condition that results in a hospital stay, especially in intensive care or after surgery, increases the risk of delirium, as does being a resident in a nursing home.

Examples of other conditions that increase the risk of delirium include:

  • Brain disorders such as dementia, stroke or Parkinson’s disease
  • Older age
  • Previous delirium episodes
  • Visual or hearing impairment
  • Having multiple medical problems

Delirium Complications:

Delirium may last only a few hours or as long as several weeks or months. If issues contributing to delirium are addressed, the recovery time is often shorter.

The degree of recovery depends to some extent on the health and mental status before the onset of delirium. People with dementia, for example, may experience a significant overall decline in memory and thinking skills. People in better health are more likely to fully recover.

People with other serious, chronic or terminal illnesses may not regain the levels of thinking skills or functioning that they had before the onset of delirium.

Delirium in seriously ill people is also more likely to lead to:

  • General decline in health
  • Poor recovery from surgery
  • Need for institutional care
  • Increased risk of death, especially with hypoactive delirium

Diagnosing Delirium:

A doctor will diagnose delirium based on medical history, tests to assess mental status and the identification of possible contributing factors.

An examination may include:

  • Mental status assessment. A doctor starts by assessing awareness, attention and thinking. This may be done informally through conversation, or with tests or screenings that assess mental state, confusion, perception and memory.
  • Physical and neurological exams. The doctor performs a physical exam, checking for signs of health problems or underlying disease. A neurological exam — checking vision, balance, coordination and reflexes — can help determine if a stroke or another neurological disease is causing the delirium.
  • Other possible tests. The doctor may order blood, urine and other diagnostic tests. Brain-imaging tests may be used when a diagnosis can’t be made with other available information.

Treatment of Delirium:

The first goal of treatment for delirium is to address any underlying causes or triggers — for example, by stopping use of a particular medication or treating an infection. Treatment then focuses on creating the best environment for healing the body and calming the brain.

Supportive care aims to prevent complications by:

  • Protecting the airway
  • Providing fluids and nutrition
  • Assisting with movement
  • Treating pain
  • Addressing incontinence
  • Avoiding use of physical restraints and bladder tubes
  • Avoiding changes in surroundings and caregivers when possible
  • Encouraging the involvement of family members or familiar people

Medications for Delirium can include:

Talk with the doctor about avoiding or minimizing the use of drugs that may trigger delirium. Certain medications may be needed to control pain that’s causing delirium.

Other types of drugs may help calm a person who misinterprets the environment in a way that leads to severe paranoia, fear or hallucinations, and when severe agitation or confusion occurs.

These drugs may be needed when certain behaviors:

  • Prevent the performance of a medical exam or treatment
  • Endanger the person or threaten the safety of others
  • Don’t lessen with non-drug treatments

These medications are usually reduced in dose or discontinued when the delirium resolves.

Coping with Delirium:

If you’re a relative or caregiver of someone at risk of or recovering from delirium, you can take steps to help improve the person’s health, prevent a recurrence and manage responsibilities.

Coping and Support

Promote good sleep habits by:

  • Provide a calm, quiet environment
  • Keep inside lighting appropriate for the time of day
  • Plan for uninterrupted periods of sleep at night
  • Help the person keep a regular daytime schedule
  • Encourage self-care and activity during the day

Promote calmness and orientation

To help the person remain calm and well-oriented:

  • Provide a clock and calendar and refer to them regularly throughout the day
  • Communicate simply about any change in activity, such as time for lunch or time for bed
  • Keep familiar and favorite objects and pictures around, but avoid a cluttered environment
  • Approach the person calmly
  • Identify yourself or other people regularly
  • Avoid arguments
  • Use comfort measures, such as reassuring touch, when appropriate
  • Keep noise levels and other distractions to a minimum
  • Provide and maintain eyeglasses and hearing aids

Prevent complicating problems

Help prevent medical problems by:

  • Giving the person the proper medication on a regular schedule
  • Providing plenty of fluids and a healthy diet
  • Encouraging regular physical activity
  • Getting treatment for potential problems, such as infection or metabolic imbalances, early

Caring for the caregiver

Providing regular care for a person with delirium can be scary and exhausting. Take care of yourself, too.

  • Consider joining a support group for caregivers.
  • Learn more about the condition.
  • Ask for educational materials or other resources from a health care provider, nonprofit organizations, community health services or government agencies.
  • Share caregiving with family and friends who are familiar the person so you get a break.

Examples of organizations that may provide helpful information include the National Family Caregivers Association and the National Institute on Aging.