What Causes Disorientation?

Conditions list medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA

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... Read More

What is disorientation?

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
  • having delusions, or believing things even if they’ve been proven false
  • agitation, or feelings of aggressiveness and restlessness
  • hallucinating, or seeing or hearing things that aren’t there
  • wandering around

What causes disorientation?

Disorientation can be a symptom of many different medical conditions. So it’s important to look out for other symptoms that may accompany disorientation.

Delirium and dementia

Two common causes of disorientation are delirium and dementia.

Delirium is caused by sudden abnormal brain functioning that lasts for only a short period of time. It can be triggered by medications, infections, and trauma.

Something as simple as a change in surroundings can also be a trigger for delirium. For example, certain adults may experience hospital delirium after surgery or after being in intensive care.

The three types of delirium are:

  • hyperactive
  • hypoactive
  • mixed

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 Hypoactive delirium may cause drowsiness and withdrawn behavior.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
  • hallucinations
  • abnormal speech patterns or content

Delirium often arises quickly, fades away within days or weeks, and fluctuates in character.

Dementia develops more slowly than delirium, is usually permanent, and causes consistent symptoms. Disorientation and short-term memory loss can be some of the early signs of dementia.

Family members can play an important role in helping a doctor diagnose delirium and dementia.

Drugs

Disorientation can be a side effect of a number of drugs, including:

  • alcohol
  • marijuana
  • prescription medications

Withdrawal from certain drugs can also cause disorientation.

Other causes

The following physical disorders can cause disorientation:

An emergency situation can also cause distress or trigger mental disorders and result in disorientation.

What should you do if you encounter someone who is disoriented?

You should seek medical help for someone who is disorientated.

The following may be useful if a loved one is coping with any type of disorientation, including delirium:

Keep track of their medical history. Make sure that you have a list of all medications that your loved one has taken. Your knowledge of their habits, hospital history, and current symptoms can be vital in reaching a diagnosis.

Try to make surroundings familiar. A change in location can cause disorientation. Having objects that may 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.

If you encounter a stranger who is disoriented, you should encourage them to seek medical help. Consider calling 911 if they’re in danger of hurting themselves or others.

How is disorientation treated?

If you’re experiencing disorientation, your doctor can suggest a treatment after diagnosing its cause. They may do several tests to help diagnose what is causing your disorientation and any accompanying symptoms. The treatment your doctor prescribes will depend on the underlying cause.

If you take care of someone who is prone to a disoriented state, their doctor may suggest ways for you to ease their disorientation. An example is someone with Alzheimer’s disease. If you care for someone with Alzheimer’s, you may want to consult the Alzheimer’s Association website for tips and information.

What is the outlook for disorientation?

Losing your orientation isn’t necessarily life-threatening. But some of the illnesses that cause disorientation can be serious. There are many conditions that can result in disorientation. This makes it important that you seek medical attention and receive a proper diagnosis.

Your outlook depends on the underlying reason for your disorientation. For example, conditions such as Alzheimer’s may cause lifelong recurrences of disorientation. On the other hand, heat stroke may cause only temporary disorientation.

Medically reviewed by Graham Rogers, MD on November 22, 2016Written by Emma Nicholls


15 possible conditions

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.

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