Delirium is a common, serious but often treatable condition that starts suddenly in someone who is unwell. It’s much more common in older people, especially those who are living with dementia.
It is a worsening or change in a person’s mental state that can happen suddenly, over one to two days. The person may become confused, or be more confused than usual. Or they may become sleepy and drowsy.
It can be distressing to the person and those around them, especially when they don’t know what might be causing the changes.
Spotting the signs of delirium
Delirium may be the first sign that someone is becoming unwell. It is one of the most common early symptoms of coronavirus infection in people with dementia. If someone suddenly develops any of the symptoms below or is ‘not themselves’, speak to a nurse or doctor immediately. Family, friends and carers – including professional carers – are often best placed to recognise and describe changes because they know the person best. The person with delirium may be unaware of the changes and will often find it difficult to describe them.
A person with delirium may:
- be easily distracted
- be less aware of where they are or what time it is (disorientation)
- suddenly not be able to do something as well as normal (for example, walking or eating)
- be unable to speak clearly or follow a conversation
- have sudden swings in mood
- have hallucinations – seeing or hearing things, often frightening, that aren’t really there
- have delusions or become paranoid – strongly believing things that are not true, for example, that others are trying to physically harm them or have poisoned their food or drinks
Symptoms of delirium
Symptoms of delirium often fluctuate over the day. Healthcare professionals divide delirium into three types based on the other symptoms that someone has. These three types are hyperactive, hypoactive and mixed delirium. Among older people, including those with dementia, hypoactive and mixed delirium are most common.
Delirium is different from dementia
But they have similar symptoms, such as confusion, agitation and delusions. If a person has these symptoms, it can be hard for healthcare professionals who don’t know them to tell whether delirium or dementia is the cause.
When a person with dementia also gets delirium they will have symptoms from both conditions at once.
There are important differences between delirium and dementia. Delirium starts suddenly (over one to two days) and symptoms often also vary a lot over the day. In contrast, the symptoms of dementia come on slowly, over months or even years. So if changes or symptoms start suddenly, this suggests that the person has delirium.
For advice and information regarding dementia contact Age UK North Tyneside’s Dementia Connections Team on 0191 287 7014.
For professional care and support for someone living with dementia or to access our wellbeing respite services call 0191 287 7028.
March 16th 2022 marks the fifth World Delirium Awareness Day. #WDAD2022