Delirium is a clinical diagnosis made at the bedside; a careful history and physical examination are necessary, focusing on common etiologies of delirium, especially toxins and metabolic conditions. Observation will usually reveal an altered level of consciousness or a deficit of attention. Attention can be assessed through a simple bedside test of digits forward—pts are asked to repeat successively longer random strings of digits beginning with two digits in a row; a digit span of four digits or less usually indicates an attentional deficit unless hearing or language barriers are present. Delirium is vastly underrecognized, especially in pts presenting with a quiet, hypoactive state and those in the ICU.
A cost-effective approach to the evaluation of delirium allows the history and physical examination to guide tests. No single algorithm will fit all pts due to the large number of potential etiologies, but one step-wise approach is shown in Table 18-2.
Management begins with treatment of the underlying inciting factor (e.g., pts with systemic infections should be given appropriate antibiotics, and electrolyte disturbances judiciously corrected). Relatively simple methods of supportive care can be quite effective, such as frequent reorientation by staff, preservation of sleep-wake cycles, and attempting to mimic the home environment as much as possible. Chemical restraints exacerbate delirium and should be used as a last resort and only when necessary to protect pt or staff from possible injury; antipsychotics at very low dose are usually the treatment of choice, although evidence associates them with increased mortality in the elderly and limited efficacy in delirium.
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