Add Delirium to Checklist of COVID-19 Symptoms in Seniors

Diana Swift

November 20, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Delirium should be included on checklists of the presenting signs and symptoms of COVID-19, particularly in elderly adults, according to a multicenter study of seniors visiting emergency departments.

Overall, 28% of the 817 older adults who presented to the emergency department and were diagnosed with COVID-19 had delirium, according to a study published online November 19 in JAMA Network Open. Morevoer, 16% of these patients had delirium that was not accompanied by typical symptoms or signs of SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Among patients with delirium, there was a greater probability of admission to the intensive care unit compared with patients who presented without delirium (adjusted relative risk [aRR], 1.67; 95% CI, 1.30 – 2.15), as well as a greater probability of death (aRR, 1.24; 95% CI, 1.00 – 1.55).

Dr Maura Kennedy

"These findings suggest the clinical importance of including delirium on checklists of presenting signs and symptoms of COVID-19 that guide screening, testing, and evaluation," write Maura Kennedy, MD, MPH, and colleagues.

"I was absolutely seeing cases of delirium where there were no other symptoms of COVID-19, but we didn't have lot of data on the frequency of this," explained Kennedy, an emergency department physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School, Boston.

"And the rate was somewhat surprising compared with that seen in non-COVID studies of delirium, but then our study population was more at risk, coming from long-term care facilities and having prior stroke or dementia," she said. The most common form of delirium was hypoactive sleepiness and nonresponsiveness, although hyperactivity and agitation were also seen.

Kennedy thinks the addition of delirium as a common presenting symptom to diagnostic checklists would prevent some cases from being missed and allow earlier identification and management of COVID-19 patients at high risk for poor outcomes. "We certainly don't want to send them back undiagnosed to a long-term care facility or promote transmission within the hospital," she told Medscape Medical News.

That step has already been implemented in some US centers. "Delirium is something we've been looking at since the early summer," said geriatrician Angela Catic, MD, an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine's Huffington Center on Aging and the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center, Houston, Texas.

"If we see delirium, we're looking for COVID-19," said Catic, who was not involved in the study.

In Catic's experience, it is "not at all atypical" to see patients whose only symptom of COVID-19 is delirium. As with other infections and diseases, "the aging brain is incredibly vulnerable," she said.

According to William W. Hung, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City, delirium is "generally a common sign of something seriously wrong" in older adults. "In the case of COVID-19, low oxygenation caused by the infection may play a role," he told Medscape Medical News. Although he agreed that delirium should be included in the differential diagnosis of COVID-19, how frequently it is the only symptom at presentation would need to be determined in a considerably larger population, he said.

Dr Christopher R. Carpenter

Joining the company of those observing this COVID-19 manifestation is Christopher R. Carpenter, MD, a professor of emergency medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri. He was not a participant in the current study.

"I have absolutely seen and documented delirium as the presenting complaint in older adult patients who were ultimately diagnosed with SARS-CoV-2, and since March, I contemplate SARS-CoV-2 each time I identify delirium," Carpenter told Medscape Medical News. "Honestly, I ― and most of my colleagues ― are considering SARS-CoV-2 for a range of symptoms and complaints these days, because of the odd presentations we've all encountered."

Study Details

For the study, Kennedy and colleagues enrolled consecutive adults aged 65 years and older who were diagnosed with active COVID-19 and who presented to emergency departments at seven centers in Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, Michigan, and North Carolina on or after March 13, 2020. Active infection with SARS-CoV-2 was determined on the basis of results of nasal swab polymerase chain reaction tests (99% of cases) or the appearance and distribution of ground-glass opacities on chest radiography or CT (1%).

Of the 817 patients enrolled, 386 (47%) were men, 493 (62%) were White, 215 (27%) were Black, and 54 (7%) were Hispanic or Latinx. The mean age of patients was 77.7 years (standard deviation, 8.2). Their age placed them at risk for chronic comorbidities and cognitive problems; indeed, 15% had at least four chronic conditions, and 30% had existing cognitive impairment.

The authors note that among the 226 patients (28%) who had delirium at presentation, 60 (27%) had experienced delirium for a duration of 2 to 7 days.

Additionally, of the 226 patients who exhibited delirium as a primary symptom, 84 (37%) showed no typical COVID-19 symptoms or signs, such as cough, fever, or shortness of breath.

The presence of delirium did not correlate with any of the typical COVID-19 symptoms in particular; Kennedy noted that only 56% of patients in the cohort had a fever at presentation.

Delirium at presentation was significantly associated with a median hospital stay of more than 8 days (aRR, 1.14; 95% CI, .97 – 1.35) and a greater risk for discharge to a rehabilitation facility (aRR, 1.55; 95% CI, 1.07 – 2.26). Factors associated with delirium included age older than 75 years, residence in a nursing home or assisted-living facility, previous use of psychoactive medications, vision impairment, hearing impairment, stroke, and Parkinson's disease.

Kennedy noted that the rate of delirium observed in this study is much higher than that generally reported in emergency department studies conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic. In those studies, the delirium rate ranged from 7% to 20%. The associated risk factors, however, are comparable.

"Mounting evidence supports the high occurrence of delirium and other neuropsychiatric manifestations with COVID-19, with previously reported rates of 22% to 33% among hospitalized patients," Kennedy and associates write.

In Carpenter's opinion, the development of incident delirium while receiving care in the emergency department, as opposed to delirium at the time of presentation, has been exacerbated by the no-visitor policies mandated by the pandemic, which have prevented visits even from personal caregivers of patients with moderate to severe dementia. "Although healthcare systems need to be cognizant of the risk of spread to uninfected caregivers, there's a risk-benefit balance that must be found, because having one caregiver at the bedside can prevent delirium in cognitively impaired patients," said Carpenter, who was not involved in the current study.

Among the barriers to improving the situation, Carpenter cited the lack of routine delirium screening and the absence of high-quality evidence to support emergency department interventions to mitigate delirium.

"Layer those challenges on top of COVID-19's rapidly evolving diagnostic landscape, frequent atypical presentations, and asymptomatic carriers across all age groups and the negative impact of delirium is magnified," Carpenter said.

Once elderly patients are hospitalized, Kennedy recommends the nonpharmacologic guidelines of the Hospital Elder Life Program for reducing delirium risk. Recommendations include the providing of adequate sleep, hydration, and nutrition, as well as function restoration, precipitant avoidance, and reorientation.

The study was supported in part by the National Institute on Aging and the Massachusetts Medical School. The authors, Carpenter, Hung, and Catic have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

JAMA Netw Open. Published online November 19, 2020. Full text

Diana Swift is medical journalist based in Toronto, Canada. She can be reached at

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