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Delirium is a state of mental confusion that develops quickly and usually fluctuates in intensity.


Delirium is a syndrome, or group of symptoms, caused by a disturbance in the normal functioning of the brain. The delirious patient has a reduced awareness of and responsiveness to the environment, which may be manifested as disorientation, incoherence, and memory disturbance. Delirium is often marked by hallucinations, delusions, and a dream-like state.
Delirium affects at least one in 10 hospitalized patients, and is a common part of many terminal illnesses. Delirium is more common in the elderly than in the general population. While it is not a specific disease itself, patients with delirium usually fare worse than those with the same illness who do not have delirium.

Causes and symptoms


There are a large number of possible causes of delirium. Metabolic disorders are the single most common cause, accounting for 20-40% of all cases. This type of delirium, termed "metabolic encephalopathy," may result from organ failure, including liver or kidney failure. Other metabolic causes include diabetes mellitus, hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism, vitamin deficiencies, and imbalances of fluids and electrolytes in the blood. Severe dehydration can also cause delirium.
Drug intoxication ("intoxication confusional state") is responsible for up to 20% of delirium cases, either from side effects, overdose, or deliberate ingestion of a mind-altering substance. Medicinal drugs with delirium as a possible side effect or result of overdose include:
  • anticholinergics, including atropine, scopolamine, chlorpromazine (an antipsychotic), and diphenhydramine (an antihistamine)
  • sedatives, including barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and ethanol (drinking alcohol)
  • antidepressant drugs
  • anticonvulsant drugs
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including ibuprofen and acetaminophen
  • corticosteroids, including prednisone
  • anticancer drugs, including methotrexate and procarbazine
  • lithium
  • cimetidine
  • antibiotics
  • L-dopa
Delirium may result from ingestion of legal or illegal psychoactive drugs, including:
  • ethanol (drinking alcohol)
  • marijuana
  • LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and other hallucinogens
  • amphetamines
  • cocaine
  • opiates, including heroin and morphine
  • PCP (phencyclidine)
  • inhalants
Drug withdrawal may also cause delirium. Delirium tremens, or "DTs," may occur during alcohol withdrawal after prolonged or intense consumption. Withdrawal symptoms are also possible from many of the psychoactive prescription drugs.
Poisons may cause delirium ("toxic encephalopathy"), including:
  • solvents, such as gasoline, kerosene, turpentine, benzene, and alcohols
  • carbon monoxide
  • refrigerants (Freon)
  • heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, and arsenic
  • insecticides, such as Parathion and Sevin
  • mushrooms, such as Amanita species
  • plants such as jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) and morning glory (Ipomoea spp.)
  • animal venoms
Other causes of delirium include:
  • infection
  • fever
  • head trauma
  • epilepsy
  • brain hemorrhage or infarction
  • brain tumor
  • low blood oxygen (hypoxemia)
  • high blood carbon dioxide (hypercapnia)
  • post-surgical complication


The symptoms of delirium come on quickly, in hours or days, in contrast to those of dementia, which develop much more slowly. Delirium symptoms typically fluctuate through the day, with periods of relative calm and lucidity alternating with periods of florid delirium. The hallmark of delirium is a fluctuating level of consciousness. Symptoms may include:
  • decreased awareness of the environment
  • confusion or disorientation, especially of time
  • memory impairment, especially of recent events
  • hallucinations
  • illusions and misinterpreted stimuli
  • increased or decreased activity level
  • mood disturbance, possibly including anxiety, euphoria or depression
  • language or speech impairment


Delirium is diagnosed through the medical history and recognition of symptoms during mental status examination. The most important part of diagnosis is determining the cause of the delirium. Tests may include blood and urine analysis for levels of drugs, fluids, electrolytes, and blood gases, and to test for infection; lumbar puncture ("spinal tap") to test for central nervous system infection; x ray, computed tomography scans (CT), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to look for tumors, hemorrhage, or other brain abnormality; thyroid tests; electroencephalography (EEG); electrocardiography (ECG); and possibly others as dictated by the likely cause.


Treatment of delirium begins with recognizing and treating the underlying cause. Delirium itself is managed by reducing disturbing stimuli, or providing soothing ones; use of simple, clear language in communication; and reassurance, especially from family members. Physical restraints may be needed if the patient is a danger to himself or others, or if he insists on removing necessary medical equipment such as intravenous lines or monitors. Sedatives or antipsychotic drugs may be used to reduce anxiety, hallucinations, and delusions.


Persons with delirium usually have a worse prognosis for the underlying disease than the person without delirium. Nonetheless, those without terminal illness usually recover from delirium. They may not, however, regain all their original cognitive abilities, and may be left with some permanent impairments, including fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, or mood changes.


Prevention of delirium is focused on treating or avoiding its underlying causes. The most preventable forms are those induced by drugs. Strategies for reducing delirium include following prescriptions, consulting the prescribing physician immediately if symptoms occur, and consulting the physician before discontinuing the drug, even if it has been ineffective; avoiding intoxication with legal or illegal drugs, and seeking professional assistance before suddenly discontinuing an addictive drug such as alcohol or heroin; maintaining good nutrition, which promotes general health and can minimize the likelihood of delirium from alcohol intoxication and withdrawal; and avoiding exposure to solvents, insecticides, heavy metals, or biological poisons in the home or workplace.



Guze, Samuel, editor. Adult Psychiatry. Mosby Year Book, 1997.

Key terms

Dementia — A loss of mental ability severe enough to interfere with functioning. While dementia and delirium have some of the same symptoms, dementia has a much slower onset.
Electroencephalogram (EEG) — A chart of the brain wave patterns picked up by electrodes placed on the scalp. This is useful for diagnosing central nervous system disorders.
Encephalopathy — A brain dysfunction or disorder.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


 [dĕ-lēr´e-um] (pl. deli´ria)
An acute, transient disturbance of consciousness accompanied by a change in cognition and having a fluctuating course. Characteristics include reduced ability to maintain attention to external stimuli and disorganized thinking as manifested by rambling, irrelevant, or incoherent speech; there may also be a reduced level of consciousness, sensory misperceptions, disturbance of the sleep-wakefulness cycle and level of psychomotor activity, disorientation to time, place, or person, and memory impairment. Delirium may be caused by a number of conditions that result in derangement of cerebral metabolism, including systemic infection, cerebral tumor, poisoning, drug intoxication or withdrawal, seizures or head trauma, and metabolic disturbances such as fluid, electrolyte, or acid-base imbalance, hypoxia, hypoglycemia, or hepatic or renal failure.
alcohol withdrawal delirium (delirium tre´mens) an acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome that can occur in any person who has a history of drinking heavily and suddenly stops. It can occur with any form of alcoholic beverage, including beer and wine, and is most commonly seen in chronic alcoholics. The severity of the symptoms usually depends on the length of time the patient has had a problem of alcohol abuse and the amount of alcohol that had been drunk before the abstinence that precipitated the delirium. See also alcoholism.
Clinical Course. Generally, this syndrome begins a few days after drinking has ceased and ends within 1–5 days. It can be heralded by a variety of signs and symptoms. Some patients exhibit only mild tremulousness, irritability, difficulty in sleeping, an elevated pulse rate and hypertension, and increased temperature. Others have generalized convulsions as the first sign of difficulty. Most persons exhibit severe memory disturbance, agitation, anorexia, and hallucinations.

Hallucinations are likely to follow the early signs and usually, but not always, are unpleasant and threatening to the patient. These hallucinations can be of three types: auditory, visual, or tactile. Delusions often follow or accompany the hallucinations. These patients are unable to think clearly and sometimes become paranoid and greatly agitated. At this point they can become dangerous to themselves and others.

Generalized grand mal seizures can occur in delirium tremens. The hallucinations and delusions may continue, contributing to the state of agitation and precipitating seizures.
Treatment and Patient Care. Persons with delirium tremens are very ill and have multiple short-term and long-term problems. They should be kept in a quiet, nonstimulating environment and approached in a calm, reassuring manner. They must be watched closely and protected from self-injury during the period of delirium and also when they are convalescing from their illness and are likely to feel great remorse and depression. They should be observed for signs of extreme fatigue, pneumonia, or heart failure. Respiratory infections are quite common in these patients because of their weakened condition and inattention to personal hygiene.

The diet should be high in fluid intake and carbohydrate content and low in fats. If the patient has cirrhosis, protein intake may be limited. Dietary supplements usually include vitamin preparations, especially the B complex vitamins. If the patient is unable to cooperate by taking fluids and food by mouth, tube feeding and intravenous fluids may be necessary. Tranquilizing agents and sedatives are useful for therapy.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.


, pl.


(dĕ-lir'ē-ŭm, dĕ-lir'ē-ă),
An altered state of consciousness, consisting of confusion, distractibility, disorientation, disordered thinking and memory, defective perception (illusions and hallucinations), prominent hyperactivity, agitation, and autonomic nervous system overactivity; caused by illness, medication, or toxic, structural, and metabolic disorders.
[L. fr. deliro, to be crazy, fr. de- + lira, a furrow (i.e., go out of the furrow)]
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012


n. pl. delir·iums or delir·ia (-ē-ə)
A temporary state of mental confusion and fluctuating consciousness resulting from high fever, intoxication, shock, or other causes. It is characterized by anxiety, disorientation, hallucinations, delusions, and incoherent speech.

de·lir′i·ant adj.
The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2007, 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


Neurology An acute organic brain disorder caused by a defect in cognate functions with global impairment and a ↓ clarity of awareness of the environment, which may progress or regress Etiology May be multifactorial–eg, due to toxins; substance abuse; acute psychosis, medication–eg anticholinergics; anemia, brain lesions–eg 1º tumors or metastases; chemotherapy–eg, MTX, corticosteroids, asparginase, vincristine; endocrinopathies–eg, hypoglycemia; fever; infection; metabolic derangement–eg, ↑ Ca2+, ↓ Na+ paraneoplastic syndromes Clinical Disturbance of sleep-wake cycle, with insomnia and/or daytime drowsiness, altered psychomotor activity, perceptual disturbances, and behavior changes–eg anger, anxiety, depression, fear, irritability, paranoia, withdrawal, most prominent at night Diagnosis EEG–slowing of brain waves; cognitive capacity screening examination; mini-mental state test; trail-making B test. See Black patch delirium, Fatal excited delirium, Pseudodelirium. Cf Dementia.
McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


, pl. deliria (dĕ-lir'ē-ŭm, -ă)
An altered state of consciousness, consisting of confusion, distractibility, disorientation, disordered thinking and memory, defective perception (illusions and hallucinations), prominent hyperactivity, agitation, and autonomic nervous system overactivity; caused by a number of toxic structural and metabolic disorders.
[L. fr. deliro, to be crazy]
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012


A mental disturbance from disorder of brain function caused by high fever, head injury, drug intoxication, drug overdosage or drug withdrawal. There is confusion, disorientation, restlessness, trembling, fearfulness, DELUSION and disorder of sensation (HALLUCINATION). Occasionally there is maniacal excitement.
Collins Dictionary of Medicine © Robert M. Youngson 2004, 2005


, pl. deliria (dĕ-lir'ē-ŭm, dĕ-lirē-ŭm, -ă)
An altered state of consciousness, consisting of confusion, distractibility, disorientation, disordered thinking and memory and other signs; caused by illness, medication, or toxic, structural, and metabolic disorders.
[L. fr. deliro, to be crazy]
Medical Dictionary for the Dental Professions © Farlex 2012