Delirium is harrowing condition characterized by hallucinations and confusion. Delirium sufferers can experience vivid waking nightmares, which can appear without warning and last weeks. Hospital delirium is scary. Hospitalized patients are already in weakened states, and hospitals contain a huge number of hazards for people who are in a confused state.
Luckily, medical professionals, families, and journalists have been raising awareness about this strange and nightmarish condition. Several articles have lately pointed to the acute dangers presented by delirium appearing in already hospitalized patients. Medical professionals are still not entirely sure about the causes of or solutions to hospital delirium, but they and the care teams of patients are discussing the big relevant issues and trying to identify solutions.
What is Delirium?
First, delirium is not the same thing as dementia. Delirium can come and come, and it is generally less predictable than dementia. The two can be present together, and ruling out delirium is an important step in identifying dementia. Delirium patients frequently recover fully, so the distinction is an important one.
Delirium is often preventable but is regularly missed or misdiagnosed (research suggests it can be missed in up to half of all cases). Part of the reason delirium is so often missed is because its symptoms can include things present in other conditions. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), these symptoms can include:
- exhaustion and disrupted sleep
- memory loss
- trouble completing normal tasks like going to the bathroom
- mood swings
Many of these symptoms will look familiar to anyone who has dealt with dementia. Even trained physicians miss it. Unlike dementia, though, delirium can often be stopped (dementia is usually permanent and degenerative). Delirium is often directly related to medications, and taking a patient off these medications can make the problem vanish.
Why Does Delirium Occur in Hospitals?
Delirium hits hospital patients most often when they’ve been sedated (in fact, some doctors refer to the condition as “ICU psychosis”). The sedatives which medical professionals use to numb patients during highly stressful and invasive operations—ostensibly to keep patients’ emotions safe—appear to be associated with delirium. Additionally, the intense stress that comes with an operation, and the unfamiliar location of the hospital, can put patients at risk of developing the condition.
Hospital delirium is a common occurrence, affecting 7 million patients every year, according to an article which ran this summer in the Atlantic. If one of your loved ones is sedated during an operation, monitor her or him for any sign of delirium. Don’t write off strange behavior as simply the normal reaction of an elderly person to stress. Additionally, don’t assume someone who acts strangely around the same time as their surgery is developing dementia. Remember how frequently delirium diagnoses are missed.
Keep an eye on any hospitalized loved ones you suspect may be suffering from delirium. Hospitals are not good places to wander around confused in. Medical equipment can be dangerous when misused. Moreover, hospitals can be cold and frightening to a person suffering from hallucinations and confusion. Stress will not help someone with delirium, and may even prolong the effects.