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Identifying delirium

Last Modified: 8/30/2019

March 13 is World Delirium Awareness Day. We asked Lindy Bilimek, MSN, RN-BC, AGCNS-BC, CMSRN, to share more about the causes of this condition, which often impacts patients during a hospital stay, and things you can do to reduce the risk for a loved one.

Defining delirium

More than 7 million hospitalized Americans experience delirium each year.  Despite the frequency of the diagnosis, many people are unfamiliar with the term “delirium”.  So what is it? Delirium is a common problem that causes sudden confusion and changes in mental function. The symptoms are different from person to person and tend to fluctuate throughout the day. 

Most commonly, people with delirium:

  • Cannot think clearly
  • Have difficulty paying attention
  • May see or hear things that aren’t there
  • May become quiet or withdrawn
  • May act restless, upset or agitated

Experts think delirium is caused by a change in the way the brain is working. These changes can be caused by:

  • Infection
  • Severe pain
  • Physical illness
  • Certain medications
  • Decreased mobility
  • Lack of adequate sleep
  • Withdrawal from drugs or alcohol

Delirium can occur in all age groups, but is more common in people who:

  • Are advanced in age
  • Have dementia or depression
  • Have poor eyesight or difficulty hearing
  • Have surgery, especially hip or heart surgery
  • Have a history of delirium

Not all delirium cases can be prevented, but there are things that can be done to reduce the risk of developing delirium in the hospital. If your loved one is in the hospital you can help by:

  • Bringing glasses, hearing aids and dentures
  • Visiting with the patient to help decrease any anxiety
  • Bringing in a familiar item from home, such as a blanket or family photo
  • Notifying the health care team if you notice any symptoms of delirium


You can also help by spreading the word about delirium for World Delirium Awareness Day. Parkview’s Delirium Task Force will be out spreading awareness by engaging coworkers in conversations about delirium and providing education.  

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