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If a person suddenly becomes disoriented, seek urgent medical attention. If they become agitated or are uncooperative, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance. Stay with them to keep them calm until help arrives.

Key facts

  • Disorientation occurs when you become confused about the time of day, where you are or even who you are.
  • Disorientation is a symptom of many conditions including dementia, sepsis, low sodium levels, illicit drugs and alcohol abuse and withdrawal, or dehydration.
  • Treatment of disorientation depends on what has caused it — it usually resolves when the underlying cause has been eliminated.
  • If your friend or family member has suddenly become disorientated, they should seek medical attention immediately. It could be a sign that they are unwell.

What is disorientation?

Disorientation occurs when you are confused about the time, where you are or even who you are. It is a symptom of many different conditions.

What are symptoms of disorientation?

Signs that a person is disorientated may include:

  • confusion — unable to focus their attention
  • mumbling, or not making sense
  • not being able to recognise people they know
  • being agitated and upset

In some people, such as those with dementia, disorientation might develop slowly. Alternatively, a person can suddenly become disorientated in response to an acute illness or condition.

When should I see a doctor?

If your friend or family member has suddenly become disorientated, they should seek medical attention immediately. It could be a sign that they are unwell.

What causes disorientation?

There are many causes for disorientation. They include:

How is disorientation treated?

Treatment for disorientation will depend on its cause. It will often resolve once the underlying cause is treated. It is important to identify the cause so that the appropriate treatment begins as soon as possible.

If you care for somebody with dementia who is disorientated, remember the following tips:

  • Do not assume they know who you are. You may need to introduce yourself to the person each time you talk to them.
  • Use orienting names when possible — 'your daughter Sarah'.
  • Make sure they're accompanied by someone familiar when going to a new place.
  • If they go out, ensure they carry ID with their name, address, and emergency contacts.
  • Keep familiar objects in the home and arrange their surroundings to allow them to move about easily.

For more information on disorientation and dementia, visit the Dementia Australia website or call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500.

Can you prevent disorientation?

In certain situations, you can help prevent disorientation by preventing the cause. You should follow your doctor's instructions if you take medicines to treat the cause of your disorientation.

If the cause is something that can't be easily treated, talk to your doctor about dealing with disorientation in the future. Let your family know what to do if it happens again.

Resources and support

  • The National Dementia Helpline is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 1800 100 500. They provide information, emotional support and guidance. They also provide a useful Q&A factsheet on Delirium and Dementia.
  • Visit Diabetes Australia to learn more about hypoglycaemia, a life-threatening condition which is known to cause disorientation.

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

Last reviewed: November 2023

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