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Confusion, Memory Loss and Altered Alertness


​​What is delirium?

Delirium is a sudden, confused state of mind that comes and goes over the day. People with delirium may have changes in the way they think. Their personality and behaviour may change quite a bit. They may have trouble paying attention to what is going on around them or doing the things they normally can do.

Delirium is a warning sign that something is happening that needs to be diagnosed and treated right away. Call your family doctor, nurse, healthcare provider, or Health Link​​.

What causes delirium?

There may be more than one cause of delirium. Some causes may be:
  • infection
  • medications – prescription and over-the-counter medications
  • dehydration or not drinking enough fluids
  • constipation or diarrhea 
  • fever or pain
  • having an illness that is getting worse
  • a recent fall
  • recent operation or procedure
  • problems with their blood sugars if they have diabetes
  • a recent change in where they live or where they are staying
  • alcohol withdrawal

What is the difference between delirium and dementia?

  • comes on suddenly, over a few hours, or a few days
  • may be temporary. It can last from a few days to several weeks. It may take weeks or months to recover.
  • usually develops slowly, over ​months or years. Alzheimer’s disease is one example of a type of dementia. Dementia is a slow, steady decline in function. It does not get better or worse throughout the day.

Delirium in someone with dementia can be harder to see. You may notice a sudden change in behaviour. You may also notice that the person may not be able to do things as well, or may not pay attention as well.

What puts someone at risk for delirium?

There are many risks for delirium. Some include:
  • increased age and frailty
  • history of a brain injury, dementia, or having had delirium before
  • many health issues or they are sick right now
  • stressful events
  • taking many medications
  • recent changes in medications
  • problems with hearing or sight
  • problems with moving or getting around on their own

How do you recognize delirium?

The questions below may help you recognize if someone has delirium. If you check off more than one of the questions below, please tell the nurse, doctor, or healthcare provider.

__Is there a sudden change in their function or ability to do things?
__Do they have trouble paying attention to what is going on around them?
__Has their behaviour changed in the past few days?
__Does their speech ramble or do they jump from topic to topic?
__Do they have trouble understanding what is being said to them?
__Are they more forgetful than usual?
__Are they having trouble recognizing people they know?
__Are they confused about where they are or what time it is?
__Are they more worried, angry, troubled, or sadder than usual?
__Does their mood change suddenly?
__Do they see or hear things that aren’t there?
__Are they more restless or quieter than usual?

Do they fall asleep during your visits or are they harder to wake up?​​​​​

Current as of: January 22, 2016

Author: Senior’s Health Strategic Clinical Network, Alberta Health Services