The term delirium has been used for centuries to refer to a laundry list of mental or cognitive issues. Far too often, the solution in centuries past was to pack insane asylums, as the sickness was considered a highly lethal syndrome with little chance of recovery. Today, we know otherwise. While delirium is still a dangerous condition that over 7 million hospitalized Americans suffer from each year, it’s much easier to treat when it’s recognized early.

What is Delirium?

The simplest way to describe delirium is a period of intense confusion and reduced awareness of surroundings. This is often caused by an underlying symptom causing stress on the body. In some cases, delirium may mask multiple conditions. Illness is not the only thing that may cause delirium, either. During a recovery from surgery or an extended hospital stay, delirium is common.

Make no mistake, delirium isn’t just temporary confusion.

Delirium develops quickly, over hours or days, setting it apart from conditions with similar symptoms like dementia. Due to the speed of development, it is sometimes known as an acute confusional state in a hospital setting.

Make no mistake, delirium isn’t just temporary confusion. It’s a dangerous condition that you should seek medical help for as soon as you spot it. Since delirium is often caused by unnatural stress to the body, it can mask underlying conditions. If these hidden conditions go untreated, they may become deadly.

Delirium can also be dangerous on its own. A person suffering from delirium is often at a higher risk of falling or getting hurt due to symptoms of impairment. Finally, delirium can cause longer hospital stays and a worsened health outlook for sufferers.


Since delirium can be so dangerous, noticing the symptoms quickly is important. Luckily, since it’s common for delirium to occur in hospitals, they’re in the right place to be spotted. Many of the symptoms are well established and may show themselves more in the evening. This is believed to be because it’s dark and things may appear less familiar. Some of the common symptoms are:

  • Cognitive Impairment
    • Poor memory
    • Difficulty speaking or rambling speech
    • Difficulty understanding
    • Trouble reading or writing
    • General disorientation
  • Behavioral Shifts
    • Hallucinations
    • Restlessness, anxiety, or aggression
    • Troubled sleep
    • Lethargy
    • Becoming uncommonly quiet or withdrawn
    • Depression
    • Unpredictable shifts in mood

While these are the common signs of delirium, the severity of the signs differ, and this is where the danger really sets in. Hyperactive delirium is more common and easier to spot because it causes an increase in activity.

In contrast, hypoactive delirium causes an “inactive, withdrawn or sluggish appearance.” Severe cases may even leave the sufferer in a catatonic state. The withdrawn or sluggish state can make it difficult to identify the signs of delirium. Some cases may even exhibit signs of both hyperactive and hypoactive delirium. Regardless, if you spot any of these signs, or grow concerned by your loved one’s suddenly withdrawn nature, seek medical assistance immediately.

What Should You Do?

A wise sentiment to take when it comes to delirium is this — delirium is a medical emergency until proven otherwise. This means talking to your doctor or going to the hospital to receive treatment. If your loved one is already in the hospital, share your concerns with a medical professional. From there, the search for the cause will begin. Once a cause is found, treatment and management of symptoms will start. You may even work with the staff to gently reorient your loved one out of their confusion.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, about 40 percent of cases of delirium are preventable.

With delirium so frightening, you’d probably prefer to never have to deal with it. Luckily, prevention is possible. According to Harvard Health Publishing, about 40 percent of cases of delirium are preventable. Largely, hospitals take preventative measures. These may include screenings for risk factors like impairment, sleep deprivation or dehydration. These factors are continually monitored and treated during a hospitalized stay. You can do the same at home, in your everyday life, by monitoring and managing the risk factors.

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With that in mind, healthy living is a great first step to possibly preventing delirium in the future. If you’re one of the millions of seniors who’ll suffer from delirium this year, it’s important to seek medical treatment. Even if you or a loved one are only showing a few symptoms, make the call. Whether you’re in the hospital already or at home, the sooner you get help, the sooner you can find the underlying cause and start treatment.

Further Reading

American Family Physician — Delirium in Older Persons: Evaluation and Management
The Atlantic — The Overlooked Danger of Delirium in Hospitals
New York Times — Vigilance About the Dangers of Delirium