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Disorientation is what you experience when you are confused about the time, where you are or even who you are. It can be caused by a disease or drugs or by something else. If you, or someone else, suddenly becomes confused and disoriented, you should see a doctor as soon as you are able.

What is disorientation?

Disorientation is when your mental state changes so you don't know where you are, who you are, or what the time or date is. You might also experience:

In some people, such as those with dementia, these symptoms might develop slowly. But if someone becomes suddenly disoriented, they need to seek medical attention since this is a sign something is wrong. That applies both to old and to young people.

Signs that someone is disoriented include:

  • they don't seem to focus their attention
  • they're slow and uncertain
  • they're mumbling and not making sense
  • they don't recognise people they know
  • they're agitated and upset
  • they're seeing things that aren't really there

What causes disorientation?

A common cause of disorientation is dementia, a condition that affects a person’s thinking, behaviour and their ability to perform everyday tasks. People with dementia are also much more likely than other people to develop delirium, where there is a sudden disturbance in a person’s state of mind. This is often caused by an infection or by medicines.

Another common cause of disorientation is drugs, especially alcohol or marijuana. It is also a side effect of some medicines.

There are many other causes of disorientation. Some of the more common ones include:

Some less common causes of disorientation include:

  • inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) or surrounding membrane (meningitis)
  • very low amounts of sodium or calcium in the body
  • sepsis (blood poisoning)
  • liver failure

Disorientation treatment

If someone suddenly becomes disoriented, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance and stay with them to keep them calm until help arrives.

Treatment will depend on the cause of the disorientation. It will often disappear once the underlying cause is treated.

If you are looking after someone with dementia, you can help them by making sure you keep familiar things around them in the house and by arranging things so they can find their way around.

People with dementia can suddenly become disoriented, even in previous familiar surroundings. If they go outside, make sure they carry identification, including their name, address and an emergency contact number. For more information on disorientation and dementia, visit the Dementia Australia website or call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500.

Disorientation prevention and self-help

You should follow your doctor’s instructions if you are taking medicines to treat the cause of your disorientation.

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

When to seek help about disorientation

Someone who becomes suddenly disoriented should always see a doctor as soon as they are able.

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Last reviewed: June 2018

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