The importance of diagnosing and managing ICU delirium

Chest. 2007 Aug;132(2):624-36. doi: 10.1378/chest.06-1795.


ICU delirium represents a form of brain dysfunction that in many cohorts has been diagnosed in 60 to 85% of patients receiving mechanical ventilation. This organ dysfunction is grossly underrecognized because a majority of patients have hypoactive or "quiet" delirium characterized by "negative" symptoms (eg, inattention and a flat affect) not alarming the treating team. Hyperactive delirium, formerly called ICU psychosis, stands out because of symptoms such as agitation that may cause harm to self or staff, but is actually rare relative to hypoactive delirium and associated with a better prognosis. Delirium is often incorrectly thought to be transient and of little consequence. After adjusting for numerous covariates, delirium is a strong, independent predictor of prolonged length of stay, reintubation, higher mortality, and cost of care. Expanded work on patient safety and recommendations by professional societies have established the importance of delirium monitoring and recommended it as standard practice in ICUs all over the world. This evidence-based review for physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, and pharmacists will outline why it is imperative that patients be routinely monitored for delirium. This review will discuss modifiable risk factors for delirium, such as metabolic disturbances or potent sedative and analgesic medications. Attention to mitigating risk factors, along with recommended pharmacologic approaches such as antipsychotic medications, may provide resolution of delirium in some patients, while others will persist with refractory brain dysfunction and long-term cognitive impairment following critical illness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antipsychotic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Delirium* / diagnosis
  • Delirium* / drug therapy
  • Delirium* / etiology
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Humans
  • Respiration, Artificial / adverse effects*
  • Respiratory Care Units*
  • Respiratory Insufficiency / therapy
  • Risk Factors


  • Antipsychotic Agents