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 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
Other symptoms that may occur along with irritability
Irritability may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:
Appetite or weight changes
Enlarged liver and glands, such as the spleen and lymph nodes
Impaired balance and coordination
Incontinence, weakness, or sensory changes
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
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:
Drug, alcohol or tobacco withdrawal
Premenstrual dysphoric disorder
Schizoid personality disorder (disorder characterized by detachment and isolation)
Schizotypal personality disorder (disorder characterized by a need for isolation, odd beliefs, and disordered thinking)
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:
Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
Medication side effects
Other acute or chronic illnesses
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
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)
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?
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
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
Suicide or violence