Which physical findings are characteristic of delirium, dementia, and amnesia?

Updated: Sep 19, 2018
  • Author: Richard D Shin, MD; Chief Editor: Gil Z Shlamovitz, MD, FACEP  more...
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General appearance (eg, unkempt and/or malnourished) may suggest the possibility of drug or alcohol abuse.

Look for track marks indicative of IV drug use.

Smell for alcohol, the musty odor of fetor hepaticus, or the fruity smell of ketoacidosis.

Icterus and asterixis point to liver failure with an elevation of the serum ammonia level.

Agitation and tremulousness suggest sedative drug or alcohol withdrawal.

Close attention to vital signs is essential and easy to overlook in the setting of extreme behavioral difficulties in a delirious patient. It is unusual for a patient with acute delirium to present to the ED with normal vital signs.

Fever may point to infection, heat illness, thyroid storm, aspirin toxicity, or the extreme adrenergic overflow of certain drug overdoses and withdrawal syndromes (in particular, delirium tremens). Extreme hyperthermia (with pinpoint pupils) may be seen in pontine strokes. In patients with a rapid respiratory rate, consider diabetic ketoacidosis (ie, Kussmaul respiration), sepsis, stimulant drug intoxication, and aspirin overdose. In patients with a slow respiratory rate, consider narcotic overdose, CNS insult, or various sedative intoxications.

A rapid pulse rate is seen in patients with fever, sepsis, dehydration, thyroid storm, and various cardiac dysrhythmias and in overdoses of stimulants, anticholinergics, quinidine, theophylline, tricyclic antidepressants, or aspirin. Patients with a slow pulse rate may have elevated intracranial pressure, asphyxia, or complete heart block. Calcium channel blockers, digoxin, and beta-blockers also may produce altered mental status and bradycardia.

Blood pressure elevation is common in delirium because of resulting adrenergic overload.

In patients with acute altered mental status and severely elevated blood pressure, check the ocular fundi for arteriolar spasm, disc pallor, papilledema, flame hemorrhages, and exudates. These are all signs of malignant hypertension. Even with these changes, the patient may be alert and minimally symptomatic.

In pregnant or recently post-partum patients with a systolic blood pressure greater than 160 or a diastolic blood pressure greater than 90 mm Hg consider preeclampsia or eclampsia. 

In patients with hypertension and bradycardia, consider an elevated intracranial pressure.

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