Posts tagged #hypoactive

The Seriousness of Deliriousness: Delirium in the ED

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Written by: Nery Porras, MD (NUEM PGY-2) Edited by: Katie Colton, MD (NUEM PGY-4) Expert commentary by: Lee Lindquist, MD


Imagine: you arrive to your shift, surrounded by the beeping and buzzing of monitors, an intoxicated patient already on the bed in front of your computer.  You gamely walk in to the room of your first patient, a 74 year-old man for whom the tracking board reads “something is not right.”  You see a quiet, subdued elderly man who looks at first glance generally well.  The family member in the room starts talking immediately, concerned that something is just not right with this man – he seems depressed, and has been forgetting names.  As she talks you hear a commotion from the next room and poke your head around the divider to see if you can help.  There you see an older woman fighting with EMS and her EKG leads, surrounded by nurses trying to keep her from jumping off the stretcher.  These widely disparate presentations potentially represent ends of the spectrum of the important but often missed diagnosis of acute delirium.

Emergency physicians are trained in the diagnosis and initial management of life and limb-threatening medical conditions.  Delirium is an under-recognized but highly morbid condition that we are under-prepared to diagnose and treat in a busy ED.  Trained in pattern recognition, we currently lack an easy and reliable method to diagnose acute delirium.  The DSM-V identifies 5 key features that characterize this diagnosis:

  •  Disturbance in attention and awareness

  • Develops over a short period of time, represents a change from baseline, and tends to fluctuate during the course of the day

  • An additional disturbance in cognition

  • The disturbances are not better explained by another preexisting, evolving or established neurocognitive disorder

  • There is evidence that the disturbance is caused by a medical condition, substance intoxication or withdrawal, or medication side effect


What’s the big deal with a somewhat confused elderly patients?

As the US population ages, elderly Americans are becoming the predominant users of healthcare with over 20 million older American visits to the ED each year (Han, et al 2013); these older patients are preferentially affected by delirium.  One study notes delirium to be present in 8-17% of all elderly ED patients and in 40% of nursing home patients (Inouye 2014).  Acute delirium can be the presentation of potentially life-threatening conditions including metabolic derangements, sepsis, and hypoxia.  Interestingly one study showed that patients in their eighties with myocardial infarction are more likely to present with delirium than chest pain (Inouye 2014).   

The diagnosis of delirium itself confers morbidity beyond the underlying condition that it can reflect.  When comparing groups of elderly patients in the ED, those with delirium were found to be markedly more likely to die within 6 months than those without delirium – 36% versus 10%, respectively (Han 2013).  Another study found that elderly patients diagnosed with delirium had 12-month mortality of 10-26%, rates comparable to sepsis or acute MI (Gower 2012).  Despite the remarkable danger of this condition, emergency physicians are bad at making this diagnosis – per one report missing 57-83% of cases of delirium (Han 2013).


What does a patient with delirium look like?

The fluctuating presentation of delirium makes it difficult to recognize but we should be attentive to certain hallmarks, including alterations in attention and awareness and acute changes in cognition.  These can be associated with hallucinations or other perceptual disturbances.  Collateral information and family input can be critical in detecting changes from baseline function and cognition.  The more acute temporal course of delirium is important to distinguish from underlying dementia, which is itself one of the most important risk factors for delirium.  The most common presentation, the hypoactive form, is a quiet, subdued, withdrawn state. This is distinguished from the hyperactive form notable for hypervigilance, irritability and restlessness. Hypoactive and mixed-type deliriums are the most common presentations in the ED, representing up to 96% of acute cases in the ED (Han 2013). Unfortunately, the hypoactive form is both more commonly missed and associated with a worse prognosis (Inouye 2014).


So, how do I diagnose delirium? Can this be done in the ED? 

As the personal, medical, and financial risks of delirium are increasingly recognized, research has focused on creating better tools for recognition and diagnosis.  Traditionally this diagnosis has required an extended interview and evaluation, usually performed by a psychiatrist or geriatrician; these methods are rarely available in the ED or inpatient setting.  Inouye and her colleagues built upon the DSM definition of delirium to create the Confusion Assessment Method (CAM) tool to quickly and easily screen for delirium.  

The CAM algorithm for diagnosis of delirium, using standardized psychiatric evaluation for delirium for validation, showed a sensitivity of 94%-100% and a specificity of 90%-95% for the diagnosis of delirium (Inouye 1990).  The CAM was later adapted and validated for use in the ED (Lewis 1995) and most recently that CAM has been modified to be even more ED friendly.  In 2013 the Geriatric Emergency Department Guidelines were put together by ACEP, SAEM, AGS (American Geriatric Society) and ENA (Emergency Nurses Association in which they delineate a real-world adaptation of the CAM, the bCAM. In conjunction with the Delirium Triage Screen, these two tools are quick, easy and practical method of assessing for delirium in the ED.  

What should be in your differential diagnosis when you suspect delirium?

 You have made the step of recognizing that your elderly patient is off their baseline; what should you consider as part of your work-up?  Consider the acronym “I WATCH DEATH” (below), a helpful reminder of the broad (and overlapping) differential of diagnoses that exist for acute delirium.  For a more nimble tool particularly useful in the ED evaluation of the delirious elderly patient, the “ABCDEF” acronym (below) was developed by Rosen et al (Rosen 2016) to identify overlooked precipitating causes.



What can I do to acutely de-escalate a delirious patient?

As always, consider non-invasive measures first – recruiting family for this can be critical.  Alleviating pain and discomfort and frequent re-orientation can help calm an acutely agitated patient.

Pharmacological interventions should be reserved for the agitated patient with overt psychotic manifestations. The use of restraints should be avoided if possible as the use of restraints themselves can worsen delirium. If medications are required, low doses of haloperidol of 0.5-1 mg can be used, although caution must be exercised with regard to QTc prolongation in patients with polypharmacy (Gower 2012).  Atypical antipsychotics can be considered as well; the chart below details one potential protocol for pharmacologic management of acute delirium.


Take Home Points:

  • Delirium is under-recognized and under-diagnosed but carries marked increases in morbidity and mortality in the elderly population.

  • This diagnosis can and should be made in the ED; consider diagnostics aids like the CAM.

  • Delirium is often the presenting symptom of an underlying pathology and a broad differential should be consider.

  • Pharmacological interventions are a last resort; if needed low does of haloperidol or other atypical antipsychotics can be considered.

Expert Commentary

I love that delirium in the emergency department is being discussed! As a geriatrician, so many of my older adult patients are brought into the ED with these symptoms and it is vital that delirium is recognized and treated effectively. Delirium is a serious problem among older adults – and their families and supporters. It carries a high risk of extended hospitalizations, morbidity, and mortality. Katie and Nery did an excellent job describing the full spectrum of Delirium – ranging from hypo to hyperactive delirium. The hypoactive delirium symptoms are frequently missed because older adults affected by this are very quiet and often appear distracted.  With “the squeaky wheel getting the grease”, we are more likely to recognize and respond to the older adult with hyperactive delirium instead. 

I fully concur that collateral information is important. I would emphasize that we need to encourage patient families and supporters to stay with the patient – even after the patient is being admitted and moved to the inpatient setting. What can be most frustrating is that families will sometimes leave once the patient is called from the waiting room or after they have been seen by one staff member. We need to reaffirm with families that they need to remain at bedside and continue to remain at bedside when the patient is admitted. Having a loved one nearby will help both physicians in obtaining more information as well as the patient is reorienting and soothing them. I have seen too often that family members will leave from the ED, since the patient is being admitted, and subsequently, the patient’s agitation worsens. Important lesson:  Please tell families to follow the patients to the inpatient floors/rooms and continue to stay with them.  

 Besides the family, collateral information should be obtained from the patient’s prior residence. So many older adult patients are transferred from skilled nursing facilities (SNF), or senior residences/communities (e.g. assisted living, memory care) for worsening confusion and delirium. I would suggest that ED teams contact the SNF nurses to determine collateral information. It would also be helpful to become familiar with the places that house seniors in their area (e.g. set up a tour, ask for clinical/nurse station phone numbers) so that communication can flow more easily.

From a clinical practice, the most common causes of delirium that I see are medication-related (withdrawal, polypharmacy) and dehydration. Doing a medication/brown bag review is always my first step. What I see is that older adults will sometimes start an OTC medication (e.g. diphenhydramine, sleep aid, or a pain medicine/sleep aid combo like a “acetaminophen PM”) and that will cause the acute confusion.   Dehydration is also a common cause for delirium among older adults since we lose our thirst mechanism as we age and do not feel the need to drink. With summer weather, it is easy for a senior to become dehydrated with the first symptoms being delirium.

I would like to point out that UTIs are frequently misdiagnosed as a cause for delirium. What does that mean? We have been taught that UTIs can be the culprit for delirium - but it is usually not.  Actually, checking a UA for confusion alone is no longer recommended by the CDC. The CDC recommends that urinary symptoms (e.g. frequency, dysuria) are present for UA testing. Why? Many older adults have asymptomatic bacteriuria – so much so that UTIs are frequently over-diagnosed in the ED as the culprit for delirium. When the culture comes back days later, there is a lack of evidence for the UTI. Even on the graphic presented by Katie and Nery on infections causing delirium – UTI is not listed.  What I will do is ask for collateral information about any prior urinary symptoms from the families, fevers/chills, leukocystosis, and check for suprapubic tenderness on exam to assess urinary issues as a culprit for delirium.

Lastly, avoid benzodiazepines to treat delirium in older adults. I realize that it is listed on the infographic but this class of medicines are likely to exacerbate the delirium. Benzos can be used for alcohol withdrawal symptoms/delirium tremens but that is it. The ABIM Choosing Wisely Campaign has noted this “Don’t use benzodiazepines or other sedative-hypnotics in older adults as first choice for insomnia, agitation or delirium.”   Non-pharmacologic methods are by far the best to treat delirium.  

Delirium is not fun for our older adults or their families. The quicker we can recognize the symptoms of delirium and ameliorate the cause in the ED, the better everyone’s lives are. I congratulate Nery and Katie for a great discussion of delirium and I hope that it will impact how we treat our seniors with delirium!


  1. ABIM Choosing Wisely – Geriatrics. Available at:

  2. Mody L, Juthani-Mehta M: Urinary tract infections in older women: a clinical review. Jama 2014, 311(8):844-854.

  3. McKenzie R, Stewart MT, Bellantoni MF, Finucane TE: Bacteriuria in individuals who become delirious. Am J Med 2014, 127(4):255-257.

  4. Nicolle L.E., Bradley S., Colgan R., Rice J.C., Schaeffer A., Hooton T.M. Infectious Diseases Society of America Guideline for the diagnosis and treatment of asymptomatic bacteriuria in adults. Clin. Infect. Dis. 2005;40:643–654.


Lee Lindquist, MD, MPH

Associate Professor of Medicine

General Internal Medicine and Geriatrics

How To Cite This Post

[Peer-Reviewed, Web Publication] Porras N, Lindquist L. (2019, March 25). The seriousness of deliriousness: delirium in the ED [NUEM Blog. Expert Commentary by Lindquist L]. Retrieved from

Other Posts You May Enjoy


  1. Gower, Lynn, et al. “Emergency Department Management of Delirium in the Elderly.” Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, vol. 13, no. 2 Jan. 2013, pp. 194-201.

  2. Grossmann, Florian F. et al. “Screening, detection and management of delirium in the emergency department – a pilot study on the feasibility of a new algorithm for use in older emergency department patients: the modified Confusion Assessment Method for the Emergency Department (MCAM-ED).” Scandinavian Journal of Trauma, Resuscitation and Emergency Medicine, vol. 22, no. 1, 2014, p. 19.

  3. Geriatric Emergency Department Guidelines. (2014). Annals of Emergency Medicine, 63(5). doi:10.1016/j.annemergmed.2014.02.008

  4. Han, Jin H., et al. “Delirium in the Older Emergency Department Patient: A Quiet Epidemic.” Emergency Medicine Clinics of North America, vol. 28, no. 3, 2010, pp. 611-631.

  5. Inouye, Sharon K, et al. “Delirium in elderly people” The Lancet, vol. 383, no. 9934, 2014, pp. 911-922.

  6. Inouye, Sharon K. “Clarifying confusion: The Confusion Assessment Method.” Annals of Internal Medicine, vol. 113, no. 12, 1990, pp. 941-948.

  7. Inouye SK. The Confusion Assessment Method (CAM):Training Manual and Coding Guide. 2003; New Haven: Yale University School of Medicine.

  8. Lewis LM et al. “Unrecognized delirium in ED geriatric patients.” American Journal of Emergency Medicine. vol. 13, 1995, pp. 142-45.

  9. Monette, Johanne, et al. “Evaluation of the confusion assessment method (CAM) as a screening tool for delirium in the emergency room.” General Hospital Psychiatry, vol. 23, no. 1 , 2001, pp. 20-25.

  10. Rosen, Toney, et al. “Assessment and Management of Delirium in Older Adults in the Emergency Department.” Advance Emergency Nursing Journal, vol. 37, no. 3, 2015

Posted on March 25, 2019 and filed under Neurology.