Delirium in the intensive care unit: a review

Nurs Crit Care. 2009 May-Jun;14(3):145-54. doi: 10.1111/j.1478-5153.2008.00324.x.


Aim: The aim of this paper was to review the current discourse in relation to intensive care unit (ICU) delirium. In particular, it will discuss the predisposing and contributory factors associated with delirium's development as well as effects of delirium on patients, staff and family members.

Background: Critically ill patients are at greater risk of developing delirium and, with an ageing population and increased patient acuity permitted by medical advances, delirium is a growing problem in the ICU. However, there is a universal consensus that the definition of ICU delirium needs improvement to aid its recognition and to ensure both hypoalert-hypoactive and hyperalert-hyperactive variants are easily and readily identified.

Relevance to clinical practice: The effects of ICU delirium have cost implications to the National Health Service in terms of prolonged ventilation and length of hospital stay. The causes of delirium can be readily classified as either predisposing or precipitating factors, which are organic in nature and commonly reversible. However, contributory factors also exist to exacerbate delirium and having an awareness of all these factors promises to aid prevention and expedite treatment. This will avoid or limit the host of adverse physiological and psychological consequences that delirium can provoke and directly enhance both patient and staff safety.

Conclusions: Routine screening of all patients in the ICU for the presence of delirium is crucial to its successful management. Nurses are on the front line to detect, manage and even prevent delirium.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Causality
  • Cost of Illness
  • Critical Care / methods*
  • Delirium* / diagnosis
  • Delirium* / epidemiology
  • Delirium* / etiology
  • Delirium* / prevention & control
  • Health Facility Environment
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units / organization & administration*
  • Length of Stay
  • Mass Screening
  • Nurse's Role
  • Nursing Assessment
  • Primary Prevention / methods
  • Safety Management