Cognitive and other adverse effects of diphenhydramine use in hospitalized older patients

Arch Intern Med. 2001 Sep 24;161(17):2091-7. doi: 10.1001/archinte.161.17.2091.


Background: Diphenhydramine hydrochloride is a commonly prescribed medicine in hospitalized patients, but its adverse effects on older patients remain unclear.

Methods: We enrolled 426 hospitalized medical patients aged 70 years or older in a prospective cohort study in a university hospital. Measurements included baseline and daily assessments including Mini-Mental State Examination scores, Confusion Assessment Method ratings, direct observations for medical devices (urinary catheter or physical restraints), and blinded medical record extractions for diphenhydramine use.

Results: Of the 426 patients, 114 (27%) received diphenhydramine during hospitalization and shared similar baseline characteristics including age, sex, delirium risk, and Mini-Mental State Examination scores compared with nonexposed patients. The diphenhydramine-exposed group was at an increased risk for any delirium symptoms (relative risk [RR], 1.7; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.3-2.3) and for individual delirium symptoms, including inattention (RR, 3.0; 95% CI, 1.5-5.9), disorganized speech (RR, 5.5; 95% CI, 1.0-29.8), and altered consciousness (RR, 3.1; 95% CI, 1.6-6.1). Exposed patients also had increased risk for urinary catheter placement (RR, 2.5; 95% CI, 1.0-6.0) and longer median length of stay (7 vs 6 days; P =.009). A dose-response relationship was demonstrated for most adverse outcomes. Overall, 24% of diphenhydramine doses were administered inappropriately.

Conclusions: Diphenhydramine administration in older hospitalized patients is associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline and other adverse effects with a dose-response relationship. Careful review of its use is necessary in this vulnerable population.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cohort Studies
  • Connecticut
  • Delirium / chemically induced*
  • Delirium / diagnosis
  • Diphenhydramine / adverse effects*
  • Diphenhydramine / therapeutic use
  • Female
  • Geriatric Assessment
  • Hospitalization*
  • Hospitals, University
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Status Schedule
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk


  • Diphenhydramine