What is delirium? How to recognize the signs

Delirium, sometimes called an acute confusional state, is a common and potentially serious condition. While it can happen to anyone, anywhere, it often occurs when someone is in the hospital. It may result in longer hospital stays and is associated with other complications (such as an increased risk of nursing home admission).


Delirium interferes with a person’s ability to focus, stay on track or shift attention.  The symptoms often wax and wane during the day and may disturb sleep. Confusion, forgetfulness, hallucinations (seeing things which are not real) and feeling restless are common. You may have had the experience of visiting a family member or friend after surgery and found that they were not quite themselves.  Perhaps they didn’t remember where they were or why they were in the hospital. They may have appeared muddled and said strange things.


There are several causes of delirium and factors which make it more likely to occur. Predisposing factors are conditions which exist in the patient before the delirium develops, such as age and medical conditions. Precipitating factors are conditions associated with the start of delirium and include things like infections or medical complications, among others.


A combination of simple interventions (lighting, reorienting, extended family visits, explanations, familiar objects, clocks/calendars) may help to prevent delirium in a person in the hospital. These same things may also help a person recover from delirium. Let the hospital staff know if you suspect a loved one is unusually confused or agitated.


To learn more about delirium, treatment, and prevention strategies, read through our resources below and participate in our new interactive eLearning lesson.

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