Could a Sudden Behavior Change Be Delirium?


Delirium is a change in thinking and attention that comes on quickly, over a few hours or days. Family or friends are often the first to notice the changes that could signal delirium. If you notice such changes, reacting quickly is very important, because delirium can lead to other serious problems, such as falls, injuries, and mental or functional decline that may last for weeks or longer.

If you think your loved one is experiencing symptoms of delirium, call the person’s health care provider right away. If it occurs in a hospital setting, tell his or her nurse.

How can I recognize delirium?

Possible signs of delirium:

  • A sudden change in thinking that might come and go over the day or night, such as being confused
  • A change in being able to pay attention or follow directions
  • A change in alertness, such as being anxious or being very withdrawn
  • Behaving differently than usual
  • Seeing or hearing things that are not there

What are some risks for delirium?

These things put an older adult at higher risk for delirium:

  • Being older
  • Dementia
  • A severe health problem
  • Depression
  • Vision or hearing problems

Other things often add to the risk before delirium happens, such as:

  • Getting an infection
  • Certain medications
  • Unrelieved pain
  • Not sleeping
  • Having certain kinds of surgery
  • Being in a hospital, especially an intensive care unit

 What is the difference between delirium and dementia?

The thinking changes that happen with delirium begin suddenly, over hours or days.

Thinking changes with dementia happen more gradually over a longer time – usually months or years.

If my loved one is experiencing delirium, what can I do?

It can be upsetting to see someone you care about experiencing delirium. Here are some examples of things that may help.

  • Be calm, quiet and reassuring when you are with the person
  • Remind her where she is and why, and talk about current events, friends, or family
  • Make sure he or she has hearing aids and glasses, if needed
  • Help promote rest at night

Another piece of advice is to work with your loved one’s health care team about what you can do to help. Be sure to let the doctors and nurses know about any questions or concerns you have. For more information about delirium, click here.

A final note: changes in the way a person is acting are not always delirium. With any sudden change in thinking or behavior, contact a health care provider.

About the author

Sonya Flanders, RN, ACNS-BC
More articles

Sonya is an adult clinical nurse specialist with Baylor and moved to Texas from Canada to become a Baylor nurse. She's focused on enhancing health education of older adults along with their families and caregivers.

Leave a Reply

Could a Sudden Behavior Change Be Delirium?