Information about ICU: Patients May Experience Delirium


Hello, my name is Mary Lynn and I’m here
to explain delirium as it relates to patients in the intensive care unit. It
is common for patients in the ICU to suffer from delirium. In fact, experts
estimate that two out of three patients in the ICU will experience some form of
delirium. We are here to help you better understand delirium and to support both
you and your loved ones through this difficult time.
Delirium is a sudden dysfunction of the brain. It is characterized by confusion
restlessness delusions and incoherence of thought and speech. Just like the
heart the kidneys or liver, the brain is an organ in the body that can be
affected by illness, lack of oxygen or medications. Someone who is delirious may
not recognize you or their surroundings. Patients describe not being able to
think clearly or being in a mental fog. They may see or hear things that are not
there. Yet those things seem very real to them. Memory may also be affected. In fact,
the thinking problem some patients experienced after going home from a
critical illness are part of a syndrome called post ICU syndrome or PICS. It is
characterized by a wide range of physical, mental and emotional symptoms.
Some patients with PICS improve after several months, while others may never
fully recover. As a family member of a patient in the ICU I can tell you from
experience, caring for a loved one in a crisis can take its toll on your health
as well. In order to have the strength to be a caregiver and to be able to make
clear-headed decisions, it is important that you get plenty of sleep, eat well
and tend to your personal needs. Your ICU team will be available to
answer any further questions you might have. They are here to support you.
Hi, I’m Dolores and I’m a nurse in the ICU. While there’s no specific medication
to treat delirium, our medical team in the ICU is dedicated to preventing and
lessening the long-term effects of delirium. We will be monitoring your
loved one for signs of delirium. Throughout the day we will reduce the
medications that are high risk for delirium. When medically possible,
exercise and involvement in their care will be encouraged. Any vision and/or
hearing problems will be addressed immediately so they don’t cause
more confusion, and their activities, sleep and rest cycles will be kept as
normal as possible. You are an important part of your loved ones team. You know
them best. We will encourage you to alert us if something seems different. Other
things you can do to help include: talk about your friends, family members and
pets, bring in photos or small items from your home to help stir their memory,
remind your loved one of the day date and time, explain to them what is
happening and why, read allowed to the patient, support music therapy, this may
be used to calm or energize as needed, bring in their glasses and hearing aids,
keep a journal of what happened during their stay,
since many patients don’t remember this could help fill memory gaps at a later
date. Exercise is good for the body and brain,
if you’d like, you can be taught how to do easy movements with the patient
even if they are on a breathing machine. If your loved one is restless with
delirium you may be asked to sit with them and help calm them. For more
information about delirium or post ICU syndrome visit
the Society for Critical Care Medicine or Vanderbilt University website at

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