Telling the Difference Between Dementia and Delirium

By Tom Lee, 12:47 pm on
How To Tell The Difference Between Delirium and Dementia

Both delirium and dementia can create cognitive confusion and emotional distress, making these two illnesses often confused with each other. They are different, however, and it’s vital for caregivers, medical, and emergency staff to recognize and understand differing symptoms. Delirium is an especially serious and commonplace problem for the elderly and the most common complication of hospital admission for older persons.

What is delirium?

Delirium can be defined as an acute state of mind, displaying confusion and disrupted attention, disordered speech and sometimes hallucinations. It can only be diagnosed by clinical observation of behaviors. If you think your family member, friend or loved one may have delirium, seek medical help immediately. Delirium is usually temporary and will be reversible if the underlying cause is quickly treated. Know the common causes of delirium:

  • Infections
  • Drug interactions
  • Dehydration
  • Liver failure
  • Brain tumors
  • Head trauma

Delirium is common in hospitals and senior care facilities since it can also stem from drug or alcohol abuse or withdrawal, UTIs, pneumonia and skin infections. Surgery or any procedure using anesthesia, high fevers, sleep deprivation, and severe emotional stress are also known triggers.

Symptoms of delirium include:

  • Obvious displays of emotional disturbance
  • Fluctuating or sudden mood changes
  • Behavioral disturbances (e.g. hyperactivity)
  • Cognitive issues/Inattention or distraction
  • Disorganized thinking
  • Reduced awareness of one’s environment
  • Hallucinations or delusions

How does one know delirium from dementia?

Delirium and dementia seem similar, but delirium has an abrupt start of hours or days, and fluctuates in intensity, from day to day, or hour to hour. Dementia develops over long periods of time, progressing slowly with cognitive decline, and is considered irreversible. Dementia and delirium both appear as mental confusion with behavioral changes, so how can you know the difference? They are distinctly different and differentiating between the two can be critically important when caring for an elderly person.

Why is it important to know the difference?

Delirium is often the first warning sign that a serious medical illness or adverse medication reaction is present in the adult. There could be a medical emergency at hand. Delirium must be treated or it can lead to permanent complications or even death. Sadly, delirium often goes unrecognized by medical professionals because the behavior changes can too easily be attributed to dementia, instead of the severely acute problem that it is. A healthcare provider should be contacted immediately when symptoms of delirium are present. About ¼ of dementia patients develop delirium while hospitalized, but there’s no specific treatment, other than creating a safe and comfortable environment, with excess noise, lighting and stimulation reduced. A reassuring family member or friend will often prevent the need to medicate.

Does the senior in your life need dementia care?

Caregivers at Home Care Assistance of Greater Burlington are in our proprietary Cognitive Therapeutics Method™. This program is designed for our clients to receive one-on-one cognitive stimulation along with support with basic care and activities of daily living at no additional cost.  Call Home Care Assistance of Burlington at (802) 231-0415 and let us provide you with professional dementia care for your loved one.

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