Irritability

Was this helpful?
28

What is irritability?

Irritability is a behavior or response to people or circumstances that cause annoyance or frustration. While it can be a normal temporary symptom of situational stress or anxiety, severe or persistent irritability may be an indication of a more complex underlying disorder.

Irritability can be related to psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoid and schizotypal personality disorders, or substance abuse. Drug, alcohol, or tobacco withdrawal can also cause irritability.

Irritability can also be related to medication side effects or chronic medical conditions. Medications and substances can directly affect the nervous system, which can result in irritability. Medical conditions that affect the central nervous system, such as dementia, brain tumors, meningitis, and stroke, can cause irritability. Irritability can also result from conditions that can deprive the brain of nutrients and oxygen, such as cardiovascular and lung diseases.

Irritability can also be associated with a variety of other diseases that affect how well one feels, such as chronic pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, acute illnesses, or severe illnesses.

Irritability can be a symptom of a serious, or even life-threatening, condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for irritability associated with confusion or loss of consciousness for even a moment; high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit); respiratory or breathing problems, such as rapid or slow breathing, shortness of breath, or no breathing; seizure; serious injury; or threatening, irrational or suicidal behavior.

If your irritability is persistent or causes you concern, seek prompt medical care.

What other symptoms might occur with irritability?

Irritability may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect behaviors may also involve other body systems.

Psychological and cognitive symptoms that may occur along with irritability

Irritability may accompany other psychological or cognitive symptoms including:

  • Anxiety, aggression or agitation

  • Confusion, forgetfulness or disconnectedness

  • Delusions or hallucinations

  • Difficulty with memory, thinking, talking, comprehension, writing or reading

  • Heightened arousal or awareness

  • Mood depression or elevation

  • Mood instability

  • Personality changes

  • Poor judgment

  • Rage

  • Social withdrawal

Other symptoms that may occur along with irritability

Irritability may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, irritability may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Being a danger to yourself or others, including threatening, irrational, or suicidal behavior

  • Change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations and delusions

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Respiratory or breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, slow breathing, not breathing, choking

  • Seizure

  • Severe pain

  • Trauma, such as bone deformity, burns, eye injuries, and other injuries

What causes irritability?

Irritability can be associated with psychiatric conditions, substance abuse, withdrawal, medication side effects, or chronic medical conditions.

Irritability is common with medications, substances, and medical conditions that affect the central nervous system. It can also be associated with conditions that can deprive the brain of nutrients and oxygen, or a variety of other diseases that affect how well one feels.

Psychiatric causes of irritability

Irritability may be caused by psychiatric conditions including:

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Bipolar disorder

  • Delusional disorders

  • Depression

  • Drug, alcohol or tobacco withdrawal

  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder

  • Schizoid personality disorder (disorder characterized by detachment and isolation)

  • Schizophrenia

  • Schizotypal personality disorder (disorder characterized by a need for isolation, odd beliefs, and disordered thinking)

  • Substance abuse

Neurological causes of irritability

Irritability can also be caused by conditions of the nervous system including:

Other causes of irritability

Irritability can have other causes including:

Serious or life-threatening causes of irritability

In some cases, irritability may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Acute delirium (sudden onset of mental status changes due to illness or toxicity)

  • Alcohol poisoning or drug overdose

  • Brain abscess

  • Encephalitis (inflammation and swelling of the brain due to a viral infection or other causes)

  • Hydrocephalus (fluid buildup in the brain)

  • Meningitis (infection or inflammation of the sac around the brain and spinal cord)

  • Sepsis (life-threatening bacterial blood infection)

  • Stroke

  • Traumatic brain injury

Questions for diagnosing the cause of irritability

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your irritability including:

  • How long have you felt irritable?

  • Can you describe your irritability?

  • Did any stressful events occur before your irritability developed?

  • Does anything make you more or less irritable?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

  • Do you have any other psychiatric or medical problems?

  • What medications are you taking?

  • Do you drink any alcohol?

  • Are you using any illicit drugs?

What are the potential complications of irritability?

Because irritability can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Brain damage, memory loss, attention difficulties, and impaired judgment

  • Coma

  • Difficulties at work, in school, in social environments, and with relationships

  • Drug and alcohol use and abuse

  • Drug overdose or alcohol poisoning

  • Increased risk of injury

  • Self-harm

  • Suicide or violence

Was this helpful?
28
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 14
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Anxiety. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/anxiety.html
  2. Anxiety disorders. National Institute of Mental Health. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml
  3. Domino FJ (Ed.) Five Minute Clinical Consult. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.
  4. Stress. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/stress.html