Systematic review of antipsychotics for the treatment of hospital-associated delirium in medically or surgically ill patients

Ann Pharmacother. 2006 Nov;40(11):1966-73. doi: 10.1345/aph.1H241. Epub 2006 Oct 17.


Objective: To determine which antipsychotic is associated with the greatest efficacy and safety when used for the pharmacotherapeutic management of delirium in medically or surgically ill patients.

Data sources: MEDLINE, Current Contents, Cumulative Index of Nursing and Allied Health Literature, PsycINFO, Biological Abstracts, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, and EMBASE databases (all to July 2006) were searched for trials evaluating the pharmacologic treatment of delirium in medically or surgically ill patients. The key terms used included delirium, agitation, or acute confusion, and antipsychotics, phenothiazine, butyrophenone, perphenazine, fluphenazine, clozapine, trifluorophenazine, loxapine, thioridazine, pimozide, molindone, haloperidol, methotrimeprazine, chlorpromazine, prochlorperazine, droperidol, risperidone, quetiapine, ziprasidone, amisulpride, or olanzapine.

Study selection and data extraction: Prospective, randomized, controlled trials comparing the clinical effects of antipsychotic therapy with placebo or comparing 2 antipsychotic treatments in an acute care setting were selected. Studies involving dementia-associated delirium, Alzheimer's disease-associated delirium, emergency department-associated acute agitation, acute brain trauma-associated agitation, or agitation secondary to underlying psychiatric afflictions such as depression or schizophrenia were excluded. All studies were evaluated independently by the 3 authors using a validated evaluation tool. Outcomes related to both efficacy and safety were collected. Four prospective trials were included in this systematic review.

Data synthesis: Antipsychotic agents, either atypical or typical, were effective compared with baseline for the treatment of delirium in medically or surgically ill patients without underlying cognitive disorders. Oral haloperidol was associated with more frequent extrapyramidal side effects, but overall, all agents were well tolerated. Interpretation of the published evidence is limited by the small sample sizes, varied patient populations, and comparative agents of the studies reviewed.

Conclusions: The comparative studies evaluated here suggest that antipsychotic drugs are efficacious, when compared with baseline, and safe for the treatment of delirium. Haloperidol remains the most studied agent. Recommendation of one antipsychotic over another as a first-line pharmacologic intervention in the treatment of hospital-associated delirium is limited by the quality and quantity of data available. Better designed and larger studies evaluating the addition of antipsychotic agents to nonpharmacologic treatments are needed to measure the true effect of pharmacologic treatment.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Antipsychotic Agents / adverse effects
  • Antipsychotic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Delirium / drug therapy*
  • Delirium / epidemiology
  • Delirium / psychology
  • Haloperidol / therapeutic use
  • Hospital Departments* / trends
  • Hospitalization* / trends
  • Humans
  • Surgery Department, Hospital


  • Antipsychotic Agents
  • Haloperidol