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What Is Delirium, and What Causes It?

13 answers | Last updated: Oct 13, 2014
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Caring.com User - Leslie Kernisan, M.D.
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Dr. Leslie Kernisan is a senior medical editor at Caring.com and a clinical instructor in the University of California, San Francisco, Division of Geriatrics....
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Delirium is a state of acute mental confusion, meaning a person's state of mind suddenly becomes worse than usual. Delirium can cause a person with a perfectly healthy mind to See also:
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See all 41 questions about Urinary Tract Infections Answers
behave like a person who has dementia. For persons with dementia, delirium makes their mental state worse. The key is that it's a sudden change from what's normal for that individual.

The main signs of delirium usually include:

  • Confused thinking.

  • Difficulty focusing.

  • Difficulty paying attention.

The person with delirium may also:

  • Appear agitated (or "revved up"), or the opposite: drowsier or quieter than usual.

  • Hallucinate or have delusions (false beliefs not in sync with the person's usual cultural beliefs).

It's common for the mental confusion to fluctuate throughout the day, with the delirious person sometimes seeming like his or her usual self and then, say an hour later, appearing much altered.

Delirium is usually a sign of a stress, such as an illness, affecting the body overall. Common serious causes include infections (such as urinary tract infections or pneumonia), abnormalities of blood chemistry (such as high levels of blood sugar or sodium), dehydration, or even excessive pain after surgery. Delirium can also be caused by or worsened by intoxication or by certain medications (such as antihistamines, which have side effects that influence brain chemistry).

Although younger people with healthy minds can develop delirium, elderly people and people with dementia are especially prone to becoming delirious when sick. A frail elder may also develop delirium when stressed by seemingly minor issues such as constipation, lack of sleep, or not having eyeglasses and hearing aids while in the hospital.

Research has shown that delirium is common in hospitalized patients; up to 50 percent of postsurgical patients may be affected. Unfortunately, delirium is often missed by hospital personnel.

Especially in a frail older person, delirium can be the only outward sign of a serious medical illness. For this reason, any new or suddenly worsened mental confusion needs to be promptly brought to the attention of a medical provider. Since a delirious person may not be able to answer questions properly, it's especially important for a caregiver to help describe the problem. Be sure the doctors realize that the mental confusion is new, or worse than usual.

 

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Tootsie @ 60 answered...

Thank God, Caring.com warned me about delerium in my 83 year old mother and I was able to recognize it and understand what was happening. Every time she gets a UTI, she is like a time bomb about to go off. As soon as I suspect one, I get her to the doctor and amazingly they question my request for a urinalysis. Which comes back positive! But after a few days on antibiotics, she returns to her normal state of dementia - to our relief. No it isn't easy and it isn't always pretty, but knowing what is happening with her helps us cope.
When she admits that she cannot remember things, it helps when we sympathize with her and assure her it's O.K. that's why we are here - to help you remember. Unless she is experiencing delerium, it usually works! Thank you for making my life easier.

 

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Paz2u answered...

It is destressing when Dr.'s say they can't listen to family they have to listen to the patient because she still is her own guardian. My mother has suffered from delirium that has been severe. You read how some get help and diagnosised early while others are out here fighing with Dr.'s who have no business being Dr.'s. This defination here is mild and very kind in its description to what we have experienced.

 

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Paz2u answered...

This question would best be posed to one of the Dr.'s because I am not a Dr. but from what I have read on the subject it could be caused from the protein that forms plaque in the brain and does nerve damage thus causing seizures.

 

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JWC answered...

How timely this topic is. My mother was admitted to the hospital earlier this wk with what turned out to be bronchitis. On the phone with her this morning she seemed agitated and even a little delusional. It's impossible to reason with someone in this state and I was so taken aback because she's never been like this but she's had a bit of change lately. Two days after she moved into Assisted Living she fell, fractured her pelvis and was in rehab for 2 mos. After being discharged and only back in Assisted Living apt for 4 days, she wound up in the hospital with what's been diagnosed as bronchitis. I spoke to the nurse who confirmed her confusion this morning. I later spoke with my mother, never mentioned our earlier phone call and she's better. That was scary and sad at the same time, particularly when you just feel helpless.

 

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Stu answered...

I have found it is very important to work with a doctor who specializes in geriatrics. Many symptoms in the elderly are very different. After 65, medicines react differently. Also a geriatrics doctor will assist with your loved one "making their own decisions" and dealing with delirium and confusion.

I find it frustrating with hospitalization and the changing of nurses and doctors on a daily basis. Many do not understand the elderly and will take your loved one off of all meds... and start over. Then you are dealing with withdrawl and confusion! It is important to use a patient advocate in that case. You should request one early on in the visit. Remember that is really not your Mom or Dad you are dealing with and "go with the flow" instead of reasoning or getting angry. This too will pass!

 

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JWC answered...

I agree, Stu, and my mom has a wonderful geriatrician. However, she does not have privileges at this particular hospital but was aware of what was going on. From my mom's recent hospital stays during the past 2 yrs, I certainly know how important it is for the patient to have an advocate for them, and there's no better person than me. I appreciate your comments.

 

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Stu answered...

The fact that your loved one's primary geriatrician is not a doctor at the hospital is quite common. Then at the hospital the doctor's are part of a group and change daily. Even they don't agree with each other.

We had one doctor take Mom off of all her meds and tell me to take her back to the primary to put he back on after he discharged her. That meant withdrawl, unnecessry pain, and many more appointments. It is like I have no life outside of caring for Mom. That is when i found out about an advocate. Mom was delirious and we both had a meltdown before they would listen to me.

I also care for my mother's older brother and my husband has health issues. I often wonder what happens to elderly people who do not have an advocate. The medical profession makes it extra hard on the advocate and then stop and tell you to take care of yourself!!!! If it was not so sad, it would be funny! I am in a support group and go for counseling. I strongly recommend both to every caregiver.

 

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An anonymous caregiver answered...

for tootsie @ 60 It is not uncommon for elderly to get a UTI without feeling symptoms. My cousin works for the VA in spinal cord injury and with MS patients - another set of patients where symptoms are not felt. The VA did a study and determined that cranberry extract actually works as effectively as antibiotics. It is helpful to take a daily dose to eliminate the potential of future infections.

 

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CaretakerDaughter answered...

I am so happy to see this article. A friend of mine is going through this stuff right now with her elderly mother. My 88yo mother has Alzheimer's and this is great info to have on hand and to keep fresh in my mind to help prevent it and to recognize it.

 

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maureen stachowicz answered...

My Mom, 88yo with mild alz. was hospitalized twice this month . First for UTI, then a week later with C Difficile as a result of the antibiotics. Because she can't tolerate so many drugs, I had to give her Compazine for nausea and vomiting regularly over a week to help keep the antibiotics down. 3 days after stopping the compazine, she began experiencing anxiety, restlessness and "tightness" in her legs and feet. She could not find a comfortable position and paced constantly until she couldn't pace any more. She would sleep a few hours then it began all over again. Her memory got worse. she couldn't concentrate on anything. (her baseline is she plays bridge and scrabble on her IPAD!!) Took her to ER where they ran tests to rule out UTI, disc problem, blood chemistries which were normal for her. They felt she'd become deconditioned as a result of the hospitalizations, which I agree with, but I still think she could have been withdrawing from the compazine as well. Then again all the illness could have aggravated her dementia. OR ALL of the ab.ove!!! She is now in short term rehab. (36 hours)No further agitation - looks better and is walking very well. She was supposed to move into Assisted Living from my home (where's she's been with me for 2 years) a few days after her first hospitalization. I think the stress of the change has played into this situation. She is agreeable to moving in to AL from rehab - probably within a week. They are all ready for her and a visiting nurse and a P.T. will probably check her a few times after that . This has been the most exhausting experience both physically and emotionally for both of us. Family is supportive, but nobody knows unless they live with this situation. Thanks for listening to this long story. It helps to write about it! (:-)

 

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LostMyWay answered...

I'm 27, I have a moderate Opiate dependency, last few days I have experienced some very different mental problems from my usual ones, I have any number of diagnosed mental health issues depending on which Doctor I believe...

Now, this delirium seems very possible to what I've felt recently.

there's many symptoms, but by far the most distressing is abnormal paranoid-like thoughts that are so complex nobody understands what I'm trying to explain, they are usually negative thoughts about people I care about... Consiperices and such... its ruining every relationship I have left, which isn't many, its erratic by the minute, from fine to all out nonsense in seconds.... and most importantly, its new... Its not G.A.D, its not Agoraphobia, its not Psychosis (but like) its not my Depression, its something else, and something new, aside from that I fit every symptom above with frightening accuracy.

There's a lot of people talking about Delirium in older people, but I just want to know how it would effect a younger person, would the dementia like symptoms not be there? it seems the rest described above could really be what the problems is, also its connection to Opiates.

I can't cope with this, and I've coped with a lot before today, psychosis, agoraphobia, many, many things... but these irrational but fully formed thoughts about the people around me are too much at the moment.

I don't expect miracle answers from such vague information but any information on delirium in young people and its connection to Opiate based painkillers would help.

Thanks

 

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CA-Claire answered...

LostMyWay - I would make sure that you are seeing a Psychiatrist (MD), to make sure that you are on the proper meds, and working towards breaking the dependence on the opiates. Luckily, my primary MD recognized that my depression/anxiety/OCD needed to be managed by a specialist - as my history includes several drug failures. It's helpful also, that the Psychiatrist is also a Geriatric Psychiatrist, so he can help my Dad too.

It takes time to get things all balanced out and working well for each individual, so be patient, but get yourself thoroughly checked out since you feel this delirium is different from your other conditions.

 

 
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