What Is Delirium?

Woman sitting on a bed hugging a pillow during a counseling session.

Delirium is a sudden decline in a person’s usual mental function. (Image: rc-respect via Pixabay)

Delirium is a sudden decline in a person’s usual mental function. It occurs when signals in the brain aren’t sending and receiving properly, causing confusion in thinking and altered behavior or levels of consciousness. It isn’t a disease — it’s a clinical syndrome or condition that is usually temporary and treatable. It’s often mistaken for dementia because both conditions have similar symptoms, such as confusion, agitation, and delusions. If a healthcare professional doesn’t know the patient, it can be difficult to tell the difference.

Up to one-third of older people admitted to hospital are diagnosed with delirium. This increases the risk of unnecessary functional decline, a longer hospital stay, falls, needing to be admitted to a residential aged care facility, and death. However, identifying the condition early reduces these risks. It can also be prevented by identifying who is vulnerable to the condition and finding ways of reducing the person’s risk.

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What causes delirium?

Delirium is usually caused by a number of underlying acute (short-term) illnesses and medical complications. Elderly people are vulnerable to it because their bodies have fewer reserves than younger people to respond to these stressors. People with dementia are particularly at risk.

Factors that cause or increase the risk of delirium include:

  • malnutrition
  • dehydration
  • new medications
  • a fall
  • surgery
  • infection
  • admission to the intensive care unit
  • multiple bed moves
  • pain
Dehydration is a risk factor for delirium.
Dehydration is a risk factor for delirium. (Image: geralt via Pixabay)

A diagnosis of delirium is made on the basis of clinical history, behavioral observation, and a cognitive assessment by a clinician trained to assess it. The patient and their family or carer should also be asked about any recent changes in the patient’s behavior or thinking.

So how can it be prevented or treated?

Clinical care focuses on preventing delirium, managing risk factors and symptoms, and reducing the chance of complications, which prolong or worsen the condition.

To help prevent delirium, you can:

  • frequently reorient the person (reminding them of their location, the date, and time)
  • encourage the person to get out of bed and, where appropriate, to walk around, while ensuring they’re safe from falling
  • manage their pain
  • ensure adequate nutrition and hydration
  • reduce their sensory impairments (helping them put on glasses and hearing aids and ensuring they’re working)
  • ensure proper sleep patterns.

Why is delirium underdiagnosed?

While delirium is potentially preventable, it’s poorly recognized, and cases are often missed. This is due to inadequate knowledge among the attending healthcare staff, a lack of routine formal screening and assessment, and health-care staff not knowing the patient.

Diagnosing delirium can be difficult when symptoms fluctuate during the day. Changes in alertness come and go, with people usually more alert in the morning and less so at night.

Delirium is also under-recognized because it can present very differently. In some people, it can result in hyperactivity (hallucinations, delusions, or uncooperative behavior), and in other people, hypoactivity (decreased arousal that can be mistaken for fatigue or depression), or a mixture of both.

Around 50 percent of people who are discharged from the hospital with unresolved delirium symptoms can experience symptoms lasting for months. Alarmingly, some people transition into permanent states of cognitive impairment.

Delirium takes a toll on carers

Delirium costs the Australian government around A$8.8 billion [US$5.9 billion] a year. The greater cost, however, is that experienced by the patient and their family. The sudden change in a person’s behavior and/or emotions as a result of this condition causes high levels of stress and anxiety for family carers.

Carers of older adults diagnosed with this condition report high levels of psychological distress, poor well-being, and less satisfaction with life because of their care-giving role.The identification and management of risk for delirium is therefore imperative for safe and quality care for both patients and their family.

Early identification and management of delirium is important.
Early identification and management of delirium is important. (Image: Viacheslav Iacobchuk via Dreamstime)

Partnering with family carers

Partnering with family carers can improve the care outcomes for older people who are hospitalized. Family carers and friends are well placed to detect changes in a patient’s cognition and behavior. Close family members, in particular, have intimate knowledge about the person’s previous mental state and can identify subtle changes in their behavior.

However, many carers of patients discharged from hospital with delirium receive little advice or ongoing support. Despite recent clinical standards recommending family carers be active participants in care, they’re often left out. This has been compounded by the COVID pandemic.

To address this shortfall, we have developed a model of care to support the integration of carers as partners in the prevention and management of delirium to improve health outcomes. Using a web-based toolkit, we’re hoping to increase awareness and knowledge of this condition among carers of older adults in hospitals who are at risk of delirium. It also aims to support the carer’s wellbeing. The toolkit is currently being trialed and evaluated at Tweed Hospital and, if successful, could be rolled out to all hospitals.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Christina Aggar, Associate Professor of Nursing, Southern Cross University

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