Drug therapy for delirium in terminally ill patients

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2004:(2):CD004770. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004770.


Background: Delirium is a common disorder that often complicates treatment in patients with life-limiting disease. Delirium is described using a variety of terms such as agitation, acute confusional states, encephalopathy, organic mental disorders, and terminal restlessness. Delirium may arise from any number of causes, and treatment should be directed at addressing these causes. In cases where this is not possible, or does not prove successful, the use of drug therapy may become necessary.

Objectives: The primary objective of this review was to identify and evaluate studies examining medications used to treat patients suffering from delirium during the terminal phases of disease.

Search strategy: We searched the following sources: MEDLINE (1966 to July 2003), EMBASE 1980 to July 2003), CINAHL (1982 to July 2003), PSYCH LIT (1974 to July 2003), PSYCHINFO (1990 to July 2003) and the Cochrane Library Volume 2, 2003) for literature pertaining to this topic.

Selection criteria: Prospective trials with or without randomization and/or blinding involving the use of pharmacological agents for the treatment of delirium at the end of life were considered.

Data collection and analysis: Two reviewers independently assessed trial quality using standardized methods and extracted data for evaluation. Outcomes related to both efficacy and adverse effects were collected.

Main results: Thirteen potential studies were identified by the search strategy. Of these, only one study met the criteria for inclusion in this review. This study evaluated 30 hospitalized AIDS patients receiving one of three different agents: chlorpromazine, haloperidol, and lorazepam. Analysis of this trial found chlorpromazine and haloperidol to be equally effective. Chlorpromazine was noted to slightly worsen cognitive function over time but this result was not significant. The lorazepam arm of the study was stopped early as a consequence of excessive sedation.

Reviewers' conclusions: The data from one study of 30 patients would perhaps suggest that haloperidol is the most suitable drug therapy for the treatment of patients with delirium near the end of life. Chlorpromazine may be an acceptable alternative if a small risk of slight cognitive impairment is not a concern. However, there is insufficient evidence to draw any conclusions about the role of pharmacotherapy in terminally ill patients with delirium, and further research is essential.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Antipsychotic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Chlorpromazine / therapeutic use
  • Delirium / drug therapy*
  • Delirium / etiology
  • Haloperidol / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Lorazepam / therapeutic use
  • Terminally Ill / psychology*


  • Antipsychotic Agents
  • Haloperidol
  • Lorazepam
  • Chlorpromazine