What is delirium?

Delirium is a common and potentially serious medical condition that refers to an acute state of confusion. It can occur in a variety of illnesses, after surgery or after people take new medications. 

It develops quickly, over hours or days, and usually lasts for a short time.

Who does it affect?

It is more likely to affect the elderly, those with dementia, those with cognitive impairment (e.g. following a stroke or brain injury), those who have a severe acute illness and those who have suddenly stopped drinking alcohol or taking drugs.

It is also very common in people who are at the end of life.  

What are the symptoms?   

Common symptoms include a sudden change in mental state or behaviour. This may include:

  • Restlessness, agitation, drowsiness and poor concentration
  • Personality change
  • Abnormal thoughts such as becoming irrational, paranoid, fearful or distrusting of others
  • Hallucinations (particularly visual)
  • Disorientation 

How can we help?

Delirium has many different causes which can make it difficult to treat. However there are things we can do to reduce the risk of developing, or worsening, delirium. These are:

  • Staying well hydrated
  • Controlling any pain
  • Maintaining usual day and night time routines
  • Preventing and treating infections as soon as possible
  • Preventing constipation
  • Reviewing medications regularly
  • Maintaining a calm environment, keeping orientated to time, place and day

Recovering from delirium

Once the cause has been treated, about two thirds of people will recover within a week. Some people may remain delirious for longer and some may not recover. People with dementia are less likely to make a full recovery.

Where can I get help?

At Trinity, we are committed to identifying, preventing and managing delirium for those in our care.

You can talk to Sarah, our delirium champion, about our clinical guidelines and any further information and guidance you might need by emailing [email protected].

If you are a patient with dementia, or a carer or family member of somebody who is affected by delirium as a result of dementia, you can also seek help from our specialist Community Dementia Service

Further information is also available on the European Delirium Association website. See here for their video of a patient sharing first-hand insights of delirium.