Preventing Delirium

What is delirium?

Delirium is a sudden change in mental function. People with delirium may appear confused, aggressive, agitated, sleepy, inactive, or sometimes a combination of all these things.

What causes delirium?

Delirium is often a sign that there is an underlying medical problem. Older people with preexisting brain problems (like a prior stroke or Parkinson's disease) who are hospitalized for surgery are at high risk of developing delirium. Anesthesia and pain medications also can contribute to delirium after surgery, particularly in those patients who are older and have existing underlying cognitive disorders, such as dementia. Other risk factors include:

  • Frailty, being underweight
  • Having multiple medical conditions
  • Severe illness or infection
  • Immobility (difficulty moving about)
  • Dehydration and malnourishment
  • Constipation
  • Pain that is not managed well
  • Use of some medications (like sedatives, pain medications, and sleep aids)

Prevent delirium in the hospital

Stay mobile. Get out of bed as soon as you are able after surgery. Walking around the unit (with help from the care staff, if needed) is the best way of preventing delirium.

Be active during the day. Eat your meals in a chair and save your bed for bedtime and short naps. Ask your nurse to open your window shade during the day so some natural light can reach your face. Do crossword, sudoku, or adult coloring books to keep your mind occupied.

Promote quality sleep. Limit caffeine intake after 11:00 a.m., close window shades and turn off the tv at bedtime. Ask for ear plugs and a sleep mask to help you stay asleep.

Use your eyeglasses and hearing aids. Poor hearing and vision is a known trigger for developing delirium. If you have these items, be sure to bring them with you to the hospital and use them!