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Confusion: Causes and Symptoms

  • Date: 2013/10/15
  • Disabled World
  • Synopsis : Information relating to some of the causes and symptoms of confusion and disorientation.

Main Document

Confusion is a condition that occurs when a person has difficulty understanding a situation, or experiences unclear or disordered thoughts. It may be accompanied by disorientation, memory loss, or the inability to think quickly. Confusion may increase slowly over a period of time, or it may occur quickly, depending on the cause. It might be associated with some chronic medical conditions, serious infections, brain or spinal cord tumor, a head injury, stroke, delirium, or dementia. Confusion may also be caused by drug or alcohol intoxication, chemical or electrolyte imbalances, sleep disorders, medications, or vitamin deficiencies. It might also happen in the period after a seizure, or due to hypothermia.

A pathological degree in which it usually refers to loss of orientation (ability to place oneself correctly in the world by time, location, and/or personal identity) sometimes accompanied by disordered consciousness and often memory (ability to correctly recall previous events or learn new material). Confusion may come on quickly or slowly over time, depending on the cause. Many times, confusion is temporary. Other times it is permanent and not curable. It may be associated with delirium or dementia.

Confusion in seniors might be aggravated by environmental changes, such as being admitted to a hospital, or because of confusion which happens late in the day or at night that can accompany certain forms of dementia referred to as, 'sundowning.' Behavioral changes may accompany confusion. Depending upon the cause, confusion may be temporary and treatable, or it might be progressive.

It is important to seek prompt medical attention for the rapid onset of confusion, particularly if it is accompanied by a high fever of higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit, a rash, a stiff neck, a head injury, flushing or dry skin, severe, nausea and vomiting, changes in a person's level of consciousness, a fruity odor to the person's breath, or other symptoms that cause concern.

Chart showing medications that may cause confusion
Chart showing medications that may cause confusion

Medications That May Cause Confusion

A number of prescription and non-prescription medications may cause confusion, or make a person less alert. Among these medications are included:

  • Antihistamines
  • Antidepressants
  • Narcotic pain medicines
  • Sedatives and tranquilizers
  • Medicines for bladder control

It is important to contact your doctor before you reduce or stop taking the dose of a regular prescription medication unless you believe you are experiencing serious side-effects or an allergic reaction. Stopping some medications suddenly may cause serious withdrawal symptoms in people who have become dependent upon them. Some medications need to be stopped gradually to prevent issues. Examples of medications that may cause issues if you stop them suddenly include clonidine, prednisone, sleeping medications, tranquilizers, and antidepressant medications.

If you have any questions concerning medications and their effects, you should ask your doctor or pharmacist. If you are taking one of the medications described, or recently started taking a new medication and are experiencing difficulties with side-effects, you should call the doctor who prescribed the medication to talk about the symptoms you are experiencing. Your doctor might change the dose you take, or change or discontinue the medication. A visit to the doctor's office might not be required.

Chart showing symptoms of confusion
Chart showing symptoms of confusion

Symptoms of Confusion

Confusion may accompany additional symptoms, ones that can vary depending upon the underlying disorder, disease, or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect a person's brain might also involve other systems in their body or disorders. Serious symptoms that may indicate a life-threatening condition and should be evaluated in an emergency setting are presented below. It is important to seek immediate medical care if you, or someone you are with, experience any of the following life-threatening symptoms:

  • A seizure
  • A stiff or rigid neck
  • Trauma to the head
  • The worst headache of your life
  • Paralysis or inability to move a body part
  • A fever higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Slurred or garbled speech or an inability to speak
  • A sudden change in vision, loss of vision, or eye pain
  • A change in level of consciousness or alertness such as passing out or unresponsiveness
  • A change in mental status or sudden behavior change such as lethargy, delirium, delusions or hallucinations

Causes of Confusion

Confusion may be associated with serious infections, head injury, some chronic medical conditions, delirium, brain or spinal cord tumor, stroke, or dementia. It may be caused by sleep disorders, drug or alcohol intoxication, vitamin deficiencies, chemical or electrolyte imbalances, or medications. Confusion may also happen in the period after a seizure - referred to as the, 'postictal period,' or as a result of hypothermia. It may also be caused by:

  • Severe dehydration
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Sleep deprivation or disturbances
  • Deficiencies of thiamine, niacin, vitamin C, or vitamin B12
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including chronic bronchitis and emphysema
  • Chronic liver disease, including any type of liver issue such as cirrhosis, hepatitis, and liver failure
  • Chronic kidney disease, including any form of kidney issues such as kidney stones, kidney failure, or kidney anomalies

Delirium is a serious and potentially life-threatening symptom that needs to be evaluated in an emergency setting. Meningitis, sepsis, a heat stroke, and encephalitis are as well. When a person experiences these conditions and confusion, it is important for them to receive emergency medical care.

Resources and Citations:


Confusion is the inability to think as clearly or quickly as you normally do. You may feel disoriented and having difficulty paying attention, remembering, and making decisions. Confusion may come on quickly or slowly over time, depending on the cause.

Confusion Symptoms

Confusion is a change in mental status in which a person is not able to think with his or her usual level of clarity. Frequently, confusion leads to the loss of ability to recognize people and or places, or tell time and the date. Feelings of disorientation are common in confusion, and decision-making ability is impaired.

Potentially Inappropriate Medication Use in Older Adults

Potential side effects include: confusion, drowsiness, blurred vision, difficulty urinating, dry mouth and constipation in older adults. They can also cause a drop in blood pressure and dizziness when you stand up.

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