Disorientation is an altered mental state. A person who’s disoriented may not know their location and identity, or the time and date.
It’s often accompanied with other symptoms such as:
- confusion, or being unable to think with your normal level of clarity
- delirium, or being confused and having disrupted attention
- delusions, or believing things even if they’re false
- agitation, or feelings of aggressiveness and restlessness
- hallucinations, or seeing or hearing things that aren’t there
- wandering around
Disorientation can be a symptom of different medical conditions. It’s important to look for other symptoms that accompany disorientation.
Delirium and dementia
Two common causes of disorientation are delirium and dementia.
Delirium is caused by sudden abnormal brain functioning. It lasts for only a short period. It can be triggered by medications, infections, and trauma.
Something as simple as a change in surroundings can also trigger delirium. For example, some adults may experience hospital delirium after surgery, or after being in intensive care.
The three types of delirium are:
Hyperactive delirium may cause hallucinations and agitated behavior. Hypoactive delirium may cause drowsiness and withdrawn behavior. Mixed delirium may cause both types of behavior.
Delirium is characterized by:
- reduced thinking skills
- poor attention span
- abnormal speech patterns or content
Delirium often happens quickly, fades away within days or weeks, and fluctuates in character.
Family members can play an important role in helping a doctor diagnose delirium and dementia.
Disorientation can be a side effect of some drugs, including:
- prescription medications
Withdrawal from certain drugs can also cause disorientation.
The following physical disorders may cause disorientation:
- carbon monoxide poisoning
- cerebral arteritis, or inflammation of arteries in the brain
- cirrhosis and liver failure
- central nervous system infections such as encephalitis or meningitis
- complex partial seizures
- drug overdoses
- electrolyte abnormalities
- heat-related illnesses
- hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia
- hypothermia, when your temperature drops below 95°F (35°C)
- hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism
- hypoxia, or reduced oxygen supply
- a mass lesion in the brain like a tumor or hematoma
- mitochondrial disease
- orthostatic hypotension
- renal failure
- Reye’s syndrome
- vitamin deficiency
- vestibular disorders, which affect the inner ear
An emergency can also cause distress or trigger mental disorders and cause disorientation.
You should seek medical help for someone who’s disorientated.
The following may be useful if someone is coping with disorientation, including delirium:
- Keep track of their medical history. Make sure that you have a list of all medications your loved one has taken. Your knowledge of their habits, hospital history, and symptoms can help your doctor reach a diagnosis.
- Try to make surroundings familiar. A change in location can cause disorientation. Objects that remind your loved one of who they are may help orient them.
- Stay close. Your presence may provide reassurance and comfort. Your familiarity with the person will also help the doctor determine what’s normal behavior.
You should encourage someone who’s disoriented to seek medical help. Call 911 if they’re in danger of hurting themselves or others.
If you experience disorientation, your doctor can suggest a treatment after diagnosing its cause. They may do some tests to help diagnose the cause of your disorientation and symptoms.
Your doctor will prescribe treatment based on the underlying cause.
If you take care of someone who’s prone to disorientation, their doctor may suggest ways for you to ease this symptom.
Your outlook depends on the underlying cause for your disorientation. For example, conditions like Alzheimer’s may cause lifelong recurrences of disorientation.
On the other hand, heat stroke may cause only temporary disorientation.
Disorientation causes an altered mental state. There are also symptoms that can go along with this condition.
It isn’t necessarily life-threatening. But, some of the illnesses that cause disorientation can be serious, so it’s important you seek medical attention and receive a proper diagnosis.