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Confusion, a mental and behavioral state of reduced comprehension, coherence, and capacity to reason, is one of the most common problems encountered in medicine, accounting for a large number of emergency department visits, hospital admissions, and inpatient consultations. Delirium, a term used to describe an acute confusional state, remains a major cause of morbidity and mortality, costing over $150 billion yearly in health care costs in the United States alone. Despite increased efforts targeting awareness of this condition, delirium often goes unrecognized in the face of evidence that it is usually the cognitive manifestation of serious underlying medical or neurologic illness.


A multitude of terms are used to describe patients with delirium, including encephalopathy, acute brain failure, acute confusional state, and postoperative or intensive care unit (ICU) psychosis. Delirium has many clinical manifestations, but is defined as a relatively acute decline in cognition that fluctuates over hours or days. The hallmark of delirium is a deficit of attention, although all cognitive domains—including memory, executive function, visuospatial tasks, and language—are variably involved. Associated symptoms that may be present in some cases include altered sleep-wake cycles, perceptual disturbances such as hallucinations or delusions, affect changes, and autonomic findings that include heart rate and blood pressure instability.

Delirium is a clinical diagnosis that is made only at the bedside. Two subtypes have been described—hyperactive and hypoactive—based on differential psychomotor features. The cognitive syndrome associated with severe alcohol withdrawal (i.e., “delirium tremens”) remains the classic example of the hyperactive subtype, featuring prominent hallucinations, agitation, and hyperarousal, often accompanied by life-threatening autonomic instability. In striking contrast is the hypoactive subtype, exemplified by benzodiazepine intoxication, in which patients are withdrawn and quiet, with prominent apathy and psychomotor slowing.

This dichotomy between subtypes of delirium is a useful construct, but patients often fall somewhere along a spectrum between the hyperactive and hypoactive extremes, sometimes fluctuating from one to the other. Therefore, clinicians must recognize this broad range of presentations of delirium to identify all patients with this potentially reversible cognitive disturbance. Hyperactive patients are often easily recognized by their characteristic severe agitation, tremor, hallucinations, and autonomic instability. Patients who are quietly hypoactive are more often overlooked on the medical wards and in the ICU.

The reversibility of delirium is emphasized because many etiologies, such as systemic infection and medication effects, can be treated easily. The long-term cognitive effects of delirium remain largely unknown. Some episodes of delirium continue for weeks, months, or even years. The persistence of delirium in some patients and its high recurrence rate may be due to inadequate initial treatment of the underlying etiology. In other instances, delirium appears to cause permanent neuronal damage and cognitive decline. Even if an episode of delirium completely resolves, there may be lingering effects of the disorder; a patient’s recall of events after delirium varies ...

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