How Is Delirium Treated?
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.
How delirium causes harm
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 health 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 healthcare costs
Finding the cause
Delirium is treated by finding and treating the underlying cause. It has many possible causes, such as reaction to medicines, changes in blood chemistry, infections, strokes, failure of organs such as the liver or kidneys, and heart and lung diseases.
Healthcare providers will take a complete medical history and do a physical exam. They may do tests to find the cause of a person’s delirium. The tests may include:
Blood and urine tests, as indicated
Imaging tests, such as CT scan or MRI of the head to check for problems in the brain including bleeding, infection, or a tumor
Lumbar puncture (spinal tap), if infection of the spinal fluid or brain is suspected
Common treatments for delirium
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. And oxygen may be given if the person has low oxygen levels.
It is important to keep the person safe. Removing unnecessary IV tubes, restraints, and catheters is often helpful. Medicines, or drugs, that can affect the mindshould be reduced or removed. In rare cases, certain medicines may be given to a person who is severely agitated. Having family members help with care is encouraged, as familiar faces are reassuring. The person’s sleep-wake cycle should be restored. To do this, it’s helpful to discourage napping and expose to the person to bright light during the day.
How long does delirium last?
Delirium may take days, weeks, or months to go away. Delirium may not go away in people with late stages of illness or near the end of life. Talk with the healthcare provider about your loved one’s situation and the treatment options available.
If you think your loved one may have delirium, seek help from a healthcare provider right away. Or call 911 or your local emergency number.