Identifying delirium in a loved one

Not many people are aware of the signs of delirium or how it can affect a person who has it but it’s a condition that requires prompt management. Aged Care and Rehabilitation Physician Dr Chok Lui explains the condition and its symptoms so that people are aware of what to look for in their loved ones.

Aged Care team at St John of God Midland Public and Private Hospitals

About delirium

Basically, delirium is a very rapid decline in brain function and while it can affect people of all ages, it can especially impact critically ill patients, older patients and those with cognitive impairment.

Delirium can be a sign of an acute, serious illness and it’s important that it is treated promptly.  

Even a brief course of delirium increases the risk of poor recovery from illness, nursing home placement and possibly dementia and death, so being able to identify and diagnose delirium quickly is essential.

The condition can be triggered by illness, injuries (such as a broken bone after a fall), surgery or some medicines.

Symptoms of delirium

Symptoms can be subtle or extreme and include a combination of the following:

  • reduced ability to concentrate
  • lethargic
  • confused
  • sleepiness
  • agitation
  • hallucinations
  • altered beliefs

As there is no laboratory test that can diagnose the condition, being able to diagnose delirium relies on being able to identify acute changes in a person’s usual mental state and behaviour.

Diagnosing delirium

As doctors, we want to involve patients’ families and friends in the process of diagnosis and ongoing care.

Family and friends often have the most information about a patient in our care and are usually able to identify subtle changes which are key to making a prompt diagnosis of delirium.

Making note of family medical history, writing down observations before the patient comes to hospital and noting changes to a patient’s usual behaviour or moods can give doctors the extra information they need to make a diagnosis and manage the condition.

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Dr Chok Lui

About the Author

Dr Chok Lui is an aged care and rehabilitation physician at St John of God Midland Public and Private Hospitals. He assists older people with acute illness complicated with multiple comorbidities, geriatric syndromes and complex psychosocial issues. Dr Lui emphasizes a holistic approach and incorporates a multidisciplinary team in the management of his patients.

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