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. Moreover, 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).
“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.
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.”