Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

Confusion can be associated with growing older.

Confusion can be associated with growing older.
beginning of content

Confusion

6-minute read

Confusion can be the sign of a serious medical condition. Call triple zero (000) and ask for advice if you (or someone you care for) experience a sudden onset of confusion or any of the following.

What is confusion?

Confusion is a term that refers to a decline in cognitive ability, that is, our ability to think, learn and understand. A decline in cognitive ability is often associated with dementia.

Symptoms of confusion include problems with short-term memory, difficulty carrying out tasks, poor attention span, unclear speech and difficulty in following a conversation.

Sometimes confusion can be temporary and will pass. Sometimes confusion is long term and is due to a permanent condition.

When should I call an ambulance?

Confusion can be the sign of a serious medical condition. Call triple zero (000) and ask for advice if you (or someone you care for) experience any of the following:

  • sudden onset of confusion
  • new or worse symptoms
  • other signs of illness, such as fever
  • skin or lips are turning blue

If you need to help a confused person:

  • stay with them
  • if they have diabetes, check their blood sugar if you can. If it's too high, call triple zero (000). If it's too low, give them a sugary snack or drink and wait for 10 minutes. If there's no improvement, call triple zero (000)
  • remind the person where they are — repeat this information throughout the conversation
  • try to keep the person safe from harm

What are the symptoms of confusion?

A person who is confused may be:

  • unable to think clearly
  • uncertain what is happening around them
  • unsure what day or what time it is

Confusion may come on quickly or develop over time (more so in older people) and can range from mild to severe. It may cause:

  • frustration
  • aggression
  • unusual behaviour or mood swings
  • anxiety

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the confusion Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes confusion?

Confusion, or being confused, is often associated with growing older.

However, this is not always the case. Sudden confusion, also known as delirium, can be caused by a number of other factors:

Delirium can also be a caused by medical conditions, such as:

Some medical conditions can cause long-term confusion. These include a stroke, epilepsy or seizures, poor kidney function, Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

If you suspect any of these conditions, it’s important to seek medical advice.

Can confusion be prevented?

There are a number of things you can do to help prevent confusion:

How can I help someone with longer-term confusion?

If someone you know has longer-term confusion, there are ways you can help them.

Communication tips

  • If the person forgets who you are, always introduce yourself to them, no matter how well or how long you have known them. This can be distressing for you as a carer but will help the person you are looking after.
  • Talk to the person about current events.
  • Explain who other people are: "This is your son, Jack".
  • Help to orientate the person using daily events. For example, instead of saying "He will be here at 2 o'clock", say "He will be here after lunch".

Tips for activites

Try to encourage peaceful and quiet activities that stimulate the mind, such as painting, playing cards or watching television and completing puzzles or quizzes.

Encourage the person to remain physically active by walking and doing gentle exercise if possible, but also make sure they get plenty of rest and relaxation. Confusion can be worse at night if the person is overtired.

Personal care and diet

Make sure the person is treated with dignity and respect if they need additional help with going to the toilet or with personal hygiene tasks such as washing or getting dressed.

You can also help to ensure the person is eating nutritious and healthy meals, avoiding too much sugar, salt and processed foods.

Tips for their environment

  • Try to have a calm and peaceful environment where the person is not constantly distracted by noise or too much activity going on around them.
  • The temperature of the room should ideally be around 21-23°C.
  • Keep lighting at a moderate level, not too bright and not too dull. Night time lighting may be needed to prevent falls or trips if the person is in unfamiliar surroundings.
  • Place a clock and a calendar near the person so they are reminded of the date and time.
  • If a person needs care away from their home and familiar surroundings, it can help to have objects that are familiar to them, for example a favourite blanket and photographs.

Wandering

A person who is confused may be at risk from wandering — for example looking for a toilet or trying to find their way home.

Take extra care to ensure that people who have memory problems, particularly older people, are monitored to reduce the risk of wandering. This may include moving toilet facilities closer to the person or creating distractions to avoid boredom.

If you encounter someone who is wandering, be aware that they may be frightened, unable to communicate properly, and may have health problems that affect their understanding and their movement.

It is important to calm them down and show them they can trust you. Introduce yourself, offer help and talk to them respectfully. Try to understand their reason for wandering and see if you can contact family members or friends. Check they aren’t injured, hungry, thirsty or need the toilet.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2021


Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Delirium and dementia

This Q&A sheet provides information about what delirium is, and, how it relates to people with dementia.

Read more on Dementia Australia website

Dementia and Sleep

How can we best understand dementia? Dementia causes a set of problems that are related to each other. These include memory loss, trouble communicating, confusion and difficulty with walking around. There might be difficulty with recognising people they know, even if they are close friends and family members. Although

Read more on Sleep Health Foundation website

Worried about your memory? | Dementia Australia

Feeling forgetful or confused? Finding out what is wrong is the first step to getting help.

Read more on Dementia Australia website

Delirium

This brochure provides information for people who are at risk of, or have experienced delirium, and for their families and carers.

Read more on ACI - Agency for Clinical Innovation website

Information for consumers - Delirium Clinical Care Standard | Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care

What is delirium?

Read more on Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care website

Creutzfeldt - Jakob Disease

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is a rare degenerative disease that affects brain tissue in humans.

Read more on Queensland Health website

Planning: early stages | Dementia Australia

Helping someone at the early stages of losing capacity Many of the people who are losing capacity have mild cognitive impairment or are in the early stage of dementia. While each person’s experience will be different, it will be a challenging and confronting time for most people. The person losing capacity may not be aware of this happening to them. They may be confused, resentful or angry about this being suggested. Alternatively, they could be aware of it happening and respond with a range of emotions – such as acceptance, depression, confusion, anger or grief.

Read more on Dementia Australia website

Diagnosing dementia | Dementia Australia

Information about the early signs of dementia, the importance of early and correct diagnosis and the ways in which it is diagnosed. What are the early signs of dementia? The early signs of dementia are very subtle and vague and may not be immediately obvious. Early symptoms also vary a great deal. Usually though, people first seem to notice that there is a problem with memory, particularly in remembering recent events. Other common symptoms include: Confusion Personality change

Read more on Dementia Australia website

Sundowning | Dementia Australia

What is sundowning? People with dementia may become more confused, restless or insecure late in the afternoon or early evening. It can be worse after a move or a change in their routine. They may become more demanding, restless, upset, suspicious, disoriented and even see, hear or believe things that aren’t real, especially at night. Attention span and concentration can become even more limited. Some people may become more impulsive, responding to their own ideas of reality that may place them at risk. 

Read more on Dementia Australia website

Impact on everyone involved | Dementia Australia

Losing capacity When a person is losing or has lost capacity, it can be very challenging for both the person losing capacity and those who are supporting them. The person losing capacity may not accept their situation and may experience a range of emotions including resentment, anger, fear or grief. The person supporting them may initially be confused and impatient about the person’s inability to make decisions. Over time, they may have to take on many roles that they have not been used to.

Read more on Dementia Australia website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.