What is Delirium?

Delirium is a sudden change in a person’s mental state that fluctuates over short periods of time. It can cause a person to have a hard time paying attention or having 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. At times the person can be frankly disoriented, hallucinate, and be combative.

Delirium is a medical emergency. If delirium is not diagnosed and treated, it can lead to permanent problems or even death.

Who is at risk?

Delirium happens most often in older adults. It can happen when a person is in an unfamiliar place, such as a hospital. It is common after surgery or during any serious illness. Other causes include drug abuse, withdrawal from drug abuse, certain medicines, toxins, and infections.

Usually, something triggers the delirium. Often delirium may be the first symptom that shows that a person has dementia. But dementia develops more gradually, over months to years.

Delirium can be upsetting for family and friends to see. But steps can be taken to help manage it. These can help ensure your loved one’s safety and comfort.

What are the signs of delirium?

Delirium can come and go over the course of hours or days. A person with delirium may:

  • Seem sleepy and quiet

  • Be confused*

  • Have trouble paying attention and focusing*

  • Not know where he or she is*

  • See or hear things that others can’t see or hear (hallucinations)

  • Believe things that aren’t known to be true (delusions)

  • Think that people want to harm the person (paranoia)

  • Have trouble remembering things that just happened*

  • Change the subject too often while talking

  • Talk about things that may not make sense*

  • Seem restless and alert

  • Become violent*

  • Have less interest in eating*

  • Appear to be depressed and not interested in doing things*

  • Have quick emotional changes such as anxiety, sadness or tearfulness, or strong feelings of joy and excitement (euphoria)

  • Be unsteady while walking*

  • Have twitching or stiffness of movement in the arms, legs, or neck*

*These symptoms can also be found in people with dementia and many other medical problems. A person with these symptoms should be checked by a healthcare provider.


If you think someone has delirium

Delirium is a medical emergency. If you think your loved one has delirium, get medical help right away. If the person is at home, call 911 or your local emergency number.