When to See a Doctor for Confusion
Confusion can be scary. It can also be mild or severe, and persistent or fleeting.
Figuring out when to see a doctor for confusion can be overwhelming. The more you know about the common causes of confusion and how to manage it at home, the better you’ll be prepared to respond if you or a loved one experience unexpected alterations in thinking and memory.
Many different things can cause confusion. Broadly, confusion can be caused by:
- Inadequate sleep, nutrition, or hydration. Sleep deprivation, starvation and dehydration can all trigger confusion. Some nutritional deficiencies (notably, deficiencies of niacin, thiamine, or vitamin B12) can also cause altered thinking.
- Physical conditions. Heart attacks, strokes, head injuries, and kidney or liver failure can cause confusion. So can decreased blood sugar and low oxygen levels. Brain tumors may affect thinking as well. Alzheimer’s disease frequently results in confusion.
- Illness. Viral or bacterial infections can lead to confusion. In fact, in elderly people, the onset of confusion is sometimes the first noticeable symptom of a possible illness.
- Mental health problems. Stress, anxiety, and depression may affect memory and thinking. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can cause confusion as well.
- Substance use. Alcohol and drug use affect thinking, perception, and memory. Prescription medications may cause confusion as well, especially if taken at higher-than-recommended doses or combined with other substances.
- Environmental conditions. Prolonged exposure to extreme heat or cold can cause confusion. An abrupt change in environment can also cause (or worsen) confusion. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for people to experience confusion in hospital intensive care units (ICUs).
Your first priority should be to keep the confused person safe. Do not leave a confused individual alone. Remove any objects that could cause harm from the environment and strive to make the person comfortable.
If the confusion is sudden and unusual, you may want to offer the individual a bit of food or a sweet drink, as low blood sugar can cause confusion. DO NOT attempt to give food or drink to someone who is unconscious or unable to swallow.
If the confusion is chronic—a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, for instance—your response will depend on the degree of confusion. In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, gently reorienting the individual (reminding him or her that it’s Tuesday, not Sunday, for example) may be helpful. Following a regular routine and limiting verbal conversation to simple sentences and one-step directions can decrease confusion as well.
Anyone who experiences sudden confusion should see a healthcare provider. Call 911 if the confusion is accompanied by difficulty breathing, fever, headache, dizziness, uncontrolled shivering, or a rapid pulse. You should also call 911 if the confusion occurs after a head injury.
Schedule a medical appointment for an elderly person who begins experiencing confusion; a physical examination may reveal an underlying physical condition (such as a urinary tract infection) that requires treatment. You should also consult a physician if confusion is affecting your (or a loved one’s) ability to function in daily life.
Emergency room physicians and general practitioners (including family doctors and internists) are equipped to evaluate confusion. If needed, they will consult with other specialists to determine the cause of confusion and create an effective treatment plan.
Do not overlook or ignore confusion. Proper medical evaluation and management can preserve health and safety.