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Delirium is a sudden change in a person’s mental state that happens over short periods of time. It can cause a person to have a hard time paying attention or following a conversation. Thinking and speech may be confused, illogical, unclear, and random. A person’s mental state may vary from being restless and alert to sluggish and sleepy.
Delirium is a medical emergency. It has a big effect on the health of older adults. People with delirium tend to have a decline in their day-to-day living. They may also become unable to care for themselves. People with delirium often need to stay extra days in the hospital. They are also at higher risk for medical problems, falls, and earlier death.
Studies have shown certain things about delirium, such as:
It puts someone at higher risk of dying within 6 to 12 months
It can cause faster mental decline in a person with dementia
People in the hospital who have delirium are more likely to have long-term mental health problems
An episode of delirium greatly increases risk of dementia in a person without dementia. It may also be the first sign of dementia.
An episode of delirium can make a person’s dementia more severe
An episode of delirium can make a person more likely to live in a long-term care facility
It can cause families financial strain due to high health care costs
Delirium is treated by finding and treating the underlying cause. It has many possible causes, such as reaction to medications, changes in blood chemistry, infections, strokes, and acute heart diseases.
Health care providers will take a complete medical history and perform a physical exam. They may do tests to find the cause of a person’s delirium. The tests may include:
A physical exam. This will check the general health of the person.
Blood and urine tests, as indicated.
Imaging tests. These may include a CT scan or MRI of the head. These check for problems in the brain such as bleeding, infection, or a tumor.
Once a cause is found, steps are taken to treat the underlying problem. In many cases, the delirium may resolve. For example, fluids may be given if the person is dehydrated. Or antibiotics may be given for an infection.
It is important to keep the person safe. Removing unnecessary IV tubes, restraints, and catheters is often helpful. Rarely, certain medicines may be given to a person who is severely agitated.
Delirium may take days, weeks, or months to go away. Delirium may not go away in people with late stages of illness or near end of life. Talk with the health care provider about your loved one’s situation and the treatment options available.
If you suspect that your loved one may have delirium, seek help from a health care provider right away. Or call 911 or your local emergency number.