Confusion is the inability to think as clearly or quickly as you normally do. You may feel disoriented and have difficulty paying attention, remembering, and making decisions.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Confusion?
Noticing the symptoms of confusion when they first appear will help you or your loved one get prompt treatment. Some signs of confusion are:
- slurring words or having long pauses during speech
- abnormal or incoherent speech
- lack of awareness of location or time
- forgetting what a task is while it is being performed
- sudden changes in emotion, such as sudden agitation
If you’re the one experiencing signs of confusion, it might be a good idea to call a friend or loved one for help. If you are confused, you might need help with things that you could do on your own before.
Many health problems cause confusion or decreased alertness. It is not unusual for a person who is sick to be sleepy or confused when he or she wakes up. But extreme sleepiness may be a symptom of a more serious health problem.
Decreased alertness occurs when a person is not fully awake, aware of, or able to respond normally to his or her external environment. Decreased alertness may also mean that a chronic illness has gotten worse.
A sudden change in the mental state or level of consciousness may be caused by:
- A head injury. Serious head injuries may cause injuries to the brain.
- Decreased or blocked blood flow to the brain. This may occur during a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or a stroke.
- A seizure disorder (epilepsy).
- A disease, such as a brain tumor or problems from diabetes.
- Environmental factors, such as dehydration, cold temperature exposure (hypothermia), and heatstroke.
- Medicines and alcohol or drug abuse or withdrawal.
- Infection, especially an infection of the nervous system.
- Shock that is caused by infection that has spread throughout the blood and tissues (sepsis).
- Heart problems, such as a heart attack, an irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia), or heart failure.
- Thyroid problems, such as hyperthyroidism.
- Low oxygen levels from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pulmonary embolism (PE), or altitude sickness.
- Metabolism problems from liver or kidney failure.
- Mental health problems, such as depression or schizophrenia.
Other problems that may lead to confusion or decreased alertness include:
- Decreased hearing or vision.
- Electrolyte imbalances, such as low levels of sodium and potassiumin the blood.
- Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) or high blood sugar(hyperglycemia).
- Malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies.
- Sleep problems, such as the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep (insomnia) or sleep apnea.
A complete medical examination may be needed before the cause of your confusion or decreased alertness can be diagnosed. Treatment depends on the cause of the problem. Contact your doctor for an exam if you are having problems with confusion or decreased alertness.
Causes of Confusion
Confusion may be caused by different health problems, such as:
- Alcohol or drug intoxication
- Brain tumor
- Head trauma or head injury (concussion)
- Fluid and electrolyte imbalance
- Illness in an elderly person, such as loss of brain function (dementia)
- Illness in a person with existing neurological disease, such as a stroke
- Lack of sleep (sleep deprivation)
- Low blood sugar
- Low levels of oxygen (for example, from chronic lung disorders)
- Nutritional deficiencies, especially niacin, thiamine, or vitamin B12
- Sudden drop in body temperature (hypothermia)
Home Care Treatment
A good way to find out if someone is confused is to ask the person his or her name, age, and the date. If they are unsure or answer incorrectly, they are confused.
If the person does not usually have confusion, call a doctor.
A confused person should not be left alone. For safety, the person may need physical restraints.
To help a confused person:
- Always introduce yourself, no matter how well the person once knew you.
- Often remind the person of his or her location.
- Place a calendar and clock near the person.
- Talk about current events and plans for the day.
- Try to keep the surroundings calm, quiet, and peaceful.
For sudden confusion due to low blood sugar (for example, from diabetes medication), the person should drink a sweet drink or eat a sweet snack. If the confusion lasts longer than 10 minutes, call the doctor.