Veteran's Health Library Menu

Health Encyclopedia

Is it Delirium or Depression?

What is Delirium?

Delirium is a sudden change in a person's mental state. It causes problems with attention, thinking, memory, and emotion. Delirium can change over the course of hours or days.

Delirium is a common condition that can be treated. It is seen as a medical emergency. If delirium is not diagnosed and treated, it can lead to permanent problems. In some cases it can lead to death. Delirium can also be mistaken for other illnesses, such as depression.

What is Depression?

Depression is when a person's mood is sad and negative for at least several weeks. The person may feel hopeless, anxious, or angry. He or she may have feelings of guilt. The person may not want to spend time with others or do things he or she used to enjoy. He or she may have low energy and trouble sleeping. In some cases, the person may show signs of wanting to die. Depression can be caused by many things, such as trauma, serious illness, changes in the environment, and more.

Delirium and depression are both health conditions that change a person's mental state. They have some similar signs and symptoms. But they have different causes, treatment, and outcomes. In some cases, a person can have both conditions at the same time.

Knowing the Difference

signs and symptoms

Depression

Delirium

Common signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms include sadness and hopelessness. They may have a lack of interest in things. Sleep and appetite may be disturbed.

Signs include seeming quiet, sleepy and confused, or restless and very distressed. Their sleep may be disturbed.

When signs and symptoms appear

There is a gradual change in mood and behavior over weeks or months.

There is a sudden change in mental state and behavior over hours or days.

Thinking and attention status

Thinking will be fairly clear. They will be able to focus fairly well. They will be able to talk with others clearly. They will be able to tell a health care provider about their symptoms. Except in rare cases, they will not likely see or hear things that others can't (hallucinations). Their memory will not be very affected.

Thought process may be confused and disoriented. They may have trouble focusing and talking with others. They will likely not be able to tell a health care provider about their symptoms. They may see or hear things that others can't (hallucinations). They may not be able to remember something that just happened.

Getting a Diagnosis

A person with signs of depression or delirium will need to be diagnosed. In some cases, you can help. You can tell the health care provider how the person's mental state is different from his or her normal state. This can help the health care provider diagnose the problem.

Health care providers will look at different parts of a person's health. They will look at what medication a person is taking. They will find out if the person has an infection, or if he or she has an illness that has gotten worse. They may talk with the person to learn more about his or her mental state. And they may do tests to see if there may be a cause for delirium.

How to Help

If your loved one is showing signs of delirium, call his or her health care provider right away. Or call 911 or your local emergency number. Tell the health care provider about the signs of delirium you have seen.

If your loved one has been showing signs of depression, talk with his or her health care provider. Talk therapy, medication, and other treatments can help. 

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 6/30/2013
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
Disclaimer - Opens 'Disclaimer' in Dialog Window | Help | About Veterans Health Library