Delirium in Elderly Patients: Symptoms, Investigations, Prevention, and Treatment

Delirium is a common and serious condition characterized by acute changes in mental status, including confusion, disorientation, and fluctuations in attention and awareness. It often affects elderly individuals and can be triggered by various factors, such as underlying medical conditions, medications, surgery, or infections. At Shire Doctors and Dentists, we recognize the importance of early recognition, thorough investigation, and appropriate management of delirium in elderly patients to ensure optimal outcomes and quality of life.

Symptoms of Delirium

Delirium manifests differently in each individual but typically involves the following symptoms:

  • Fluctuations in Consciousness: Patients may experience periods of lucidity followed by confusion or agitation.
  • Disorientation: They may become unaware of their surroundings, time, or situation.
  • Inattention: Difficulty focusing, maintaining attention, or following conversations or instructions.
  • Disorganized Thinking: Thoughts may become fragmented or illogical, leading to rambling speech or nonsensical behavior.
  • Memory Impairment: Short-term memory may be particularly affected, with patients unable to recall recent events or conversations.
  • Psychomotor Changes: Agitation, restlessness, or lethargy may be observed, along with rapid or slowed movements.
  • Altered Perception: Hallucinations or delusions may occur, leading to misinterpretations of reality. 

Investigations for Delirium

When evaluating a patient with suspected delirium, thorough investigations are essential to identify potential underlying causes and contributing factors. These investigations may include:

  • Medical History and Physical Examination: Detailed history-taking and examination to assess for underlying medical conditions, medication use, recent surgeries, or infections.
  • Laboratory Tests: Blood tests to evaluate electrolyte levels, kidney and liver function, blood glucose, thyroid function, and infection markers.
  • Imaging Studies: In some cases, imaging tests such as brain CT or MRI may be ordered to rule out structural abnormalities or brain lesions.
  • Medication Review: A review of current medications to identify potentially causative or exacerbating agents, such as sedatives, anticholinergics, or opioids.
  • Assessment of Cognitive Function: Cognitive screening tools such as the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) or the Confusion Assessment Method (CAM) may help assess cognitive function and detect delirium. 

Prevention of Delirium

Preventing delirium in elderly patients involves addressing modifiable risk factors and implementing preventive measures, such as:

  • Optimizing Medical Management: Managing underlying medical conditions, such as infections, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, or pain, to minimize the risk of delirium.
  • Medication Management: Avoiding unnecessary medications or reducing the doses of potentially sedating or deliriogenic drugs.
  • Promoting Sleep Hygiene: Ensuring a conducive sleep environment, maintaining a regular sleep-wake cycle, and minimizing disruptions during nighttime hours.
  • Mobility and Rehabilitation: Encouraging early mobilization, physical activity, and rehabilitation programs to maintain muscle strength, balance, and functional independence.
  • Nutritional Support: Providing adequate hydration and nutrition to prevent dehydration and malnutrition, which can contribute to delirium.

Treatment of Delirium

The management of delirium involves addressing underlying causes, managing symptoms, and providing supportive care. Treatment strategies may include:

  • Identifying and Treating Underlying Conditions: Addressing medical or surgical conditions contributing to delirium, such as infections, electrolyte imbalances, or organ dysfunction.
  • Medication Management: Discontinuing or minimizing the use of medications that may exacerbate delirium, such as benzodiazepines, anticholinergics, or opioids.
  • Non-pharmacological Interventions: Implementing environmental modifications, such as reducing sensory overload, providing orientation cues, ensuring adequate lighting, and promoting a calm and structured atmosphere.
  • Pharmacological Interventions: In some cases, medications may be used to manage severe agitation or distressing symptoms of delirium, but they should be used cautiously and under close medical supervision to avoid adverse effects.


Delirium in elderly patients is a complex and multifactorial condition that requires a comprehensive approach to assessment, prevention, and management. By recognizing the symptoms, conducting thorough investigations, implementing preventive strategies, and providing appropriate treatment, healthcare professionals at Shire Doctors and Dentists strive to optimize outcomes and improve the quality of life for elderly patients affected by delirium.

If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of delirium or have concerns about cognitive changes, please don’t hesitate to contact us for evaluation and support. Our experienced healthcare team is here to provide compassionate care and personalized treatment to meet your needs.

Looking for a local GP in Caringbah to discuss your concerns?

Our experienced GPs at Shire Doctors and Dentists take the time to assess your symptoms and use their experience and knowledge to assist you feeling good again.

Call 02 9063 8650 to book your GP consultation.