What to Expect with Delirium

Home > Critical Care > What to Expect with Delirium

What to Expect with Delirium

It is common for patients with a critical illness to show signs and experience delirium.  In fact, about two out of every three patients receiving care in an ICU experience delirium. This can be scary for loved ones, and we want you to know what it is, the causes, and how you can help.

What is Delirium? 

Delirium is a severe state of confusion. It has been described as similar to being in a nightmare. Delirium feels very real to patients as they can imagine they are in different situations, which can be very frightening. 

People with delirium: 

  • Are not able to think clearly
  • Have trouble paying attention
  • Have difficulty understanding what is going on around them
  • May see or hear things that are not real

 

Causes of Delirium

Causes of Delirium
Causes of Delirium

Delirium can be caused by: 

  • Less oxygen to the brain
  • The brain’s inability to use oxygen
  • Chemical changes to the brain
  • Certain medications
  • Infections
  • Severe pain
  • Medical illnesses
  • Sedatives or pain killers
  • Withdrawal from alcohol, nicotine, or certain medicines
     

Risk Factors

Risk Factors
Risk Factors

People at higher risk of developing delirium: 

  • Have dementia
  • Are advanced in age
  • Have surgery, especially hip or heart
  • Have poor eyesight or hearing
  • Have an infection or sepsis
  • May be going through alcohol withdrawal
  • Having been on a breathing machine or soon after (Seven out of 10 patients get delirium while they are on a breathing machine or soon after)
  • About two out of three patients who are in an Intensive Care Unit get delirium
     

Signs of Delirium

Signs of Delirium
Signs of Delirium

Your family member may: 

  • Be confused
  • Be agitated or uncharacteristically quiet
  • Be unusually aggressive
  • Use inappropriate words
  • Be unable to pay attention or follow directions
  • See or hear things that are not there
  • Be unaware of their surroundings
  • Act differently than normal
  • Have memory problems
  • Undergo emotional changes
  • May tremor or pick at things
  • Have changes in sleeping habits
  • Show signs of delirium during the healing process
     

How Delirium and Dementia Differ

How Delirium and Dementia Differ
How Delirium and Dementia Differ

Delirium: 

  • Comes on quickly in hours or days
  • Signs and symptoms of delirium can change from day to day
  • Can make memory and thinking problems worse
  • Usually clears up after a few days or even a week, but can last for months

Dementia: 

  • Usually a permanent condition
  • Disturbance of thinking
  • Comes on over months or years
  • Higher risk for developing delirium