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After a period of illness, it is common for people to experience confusion. The feeling of confusion may still continue on discharge from hospital. It can range from mild confusion, which may be like feeling a bit muddled, or may be more severe, which is known as delirium.

Mild confusion

Mild confusion may be a normal side effect of infection, poor appetite or dehydration, lack of sleep, medication side effects, or change in routine. This will usually pass as time goes on. If you experience mild confusion, it is very important to drink plenty, eat well and rest as much as possible.

Severe confusion

Severe confusion, or delirium, is commonly experienced after people have been in intensive care in hospital, and if people have required support with their breathing with the use of a machine in hospital.

Delirium can be caused by a number of factors and it can be a frightening experience for the person facing it, as well as for relatives or carers. Someone experiencing delirium might see or hear things that are not there but which seem real. These are known as hallucinations and can be very distressing. This can also lead to other difficulties, for example paranoia, anxiety and isolation. The experience of delirium can fluctuate and it is common for people to function as normal for periods of the day, and then lapse into a state of confusion.

Although this is usually temporary and is likely to resolve as time goes on, it can take some time for symptoms to fully resolve. If new, severe confusion is experienced at home, medical attention should be sought.

The effects of confusion may result in changes to your emotions or your behaviours. You may feel more tearful or agitated than usual. You may notice that you have difficulty remembering things, or you may find that it takes you longer to process information.

Ways to manage delirium and support recovery

The experience of delirium is individual and therefore, everyone may respond in different ways. As noted above, delirium is usually temporary and does not usually leave lasting emotional effects. However, in order to help manage the experience, it may help to:

  • Write down what you can remember about being unwell and being in hospital if possible, to help piece together your memories.
  • Talk to others about how you are feeling to help you to make sense of the experience. 
  • If you feel able to, you may wish to have contact with the staff involved in your care. It may not be possible to do this in person at the moment, as you may not feel ready and physical restrictions may make this impossible, but you may wish to arrange telephone contact to help make sense of what happened.
  • If you notice changes in your memory, try to make short lists and visual prompts and reminders to support your daily routine.

Some people may not want to talk about their experience of illness and being in hospital, and may not wish to remember what happened. It may be challenging to think about this time and it may be a gradual process of being able to think about what happened – again this is a normal experience. It is important to monitor any difficulties you are experiencing and to engage in follow up appointments with staff involved in your care.

If you continue to experience difficulties that feel overwhelming or do not improve, please consult your GP for additional support.

Go to the ICUSteps website for information on strategies to recover following an episode of confusion.


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