Management of Acutely Disturbed Patients, including Delirium

This guideline does not cover the management of acutely disturbed young people or adolescents (contact your local adolescent psychiatry liaison team for advice). For management of alcohol withdrawal, see guideline here.

Further information on risk reduction and delirium management can be found in:


Delirium is characterised by an acute and fluctuating change in alertness and cognition, usually with evidence of an underlying trigger. If the patient is more confused or drowsy than normal, "THINK DELIRIUM".

Delirium is a clinical syndrome indicative of 'brain failure' and is a medical emergency. It is essential that a thorough assessment is carried out to look for all potential causes of delirium and that these are treated as a matter of urgency. The 4AT tool and TIME checklist can be used to aid the diagnosis and management of delirium. These are found on purple paper on all wards. Detailed guidance is contained in the Delirium Diagnosis, Risk Reduction, and Management in Acute Services guideline.

COVID-19 and delirium

Delirium may be a symptom at presentation and/or during the management of COVID-19. It may make management, including delivery of care and prevention of cross-infection, more challenging. For information see the Resources section on the British Geriatric Society website for 'Coronavirus: managing delirium in confirmed and suspect cases' guidance. 

Non-pharmacological management

Always try non-pharmacological management first.

  • Talk calmly to the patient and try to find out what is making them agitated.
  • Nurse in a quiet well lit environment and orientate regularly.
  • Ensure the patient is wearing their glasses or hearing aid if applicable.
  • Avoid crowding the patient and allow them to mobilise if safe to do so.
  • Investigate and treat all identified causes of delirium using the TIME checklist as a guide.
  • If patient is agitated / distressed, consider asking for additional staffing to help manage the patient.
  • Use information from the 'getting to know me document' or 'what matters to me' boards at the bedside to help reassure the patient.
  • Consider asking a family member to help reassure and support care.
  • Avoid bed and ward moves wherever possible.

Pharmacological management

This should only be used when non-pharmacological management is unsuccessful and symptoms are causing significant distress to the patient, or symptoms threaten the safety of the patient or others (including their ability to accept necessary medical or nursing care).

Important points to note:

  • Be aware that sedative medication is associated with significant risks including increased risk of aspiration and falls.
  • Always use the oral route whenever possible.
  • Start at the lowest clinically appropriate dose, titrate cautiously according to symptoms and review at least every 24 hours.
  • Emergency sedation can be given under common law, more routine sedation however requires consideration of the patient’s capacity to consent.
  • If patient is unable to give consent (which is likely) then section 47 of the Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000 must be used (see Appendix 4 for details). Always document in medical case record reasons for prescribing sedation, indicating review dates.
  • If patient is attempting to leave the hospital or requiring physical or chemical restraint then detention under the Mental Health act may be required (see Appendix 4 for more details). 

Outwith the emergency situation it is very important that the patient, or more usually the Power of Attorney or next of kin, is made aware of the potential risks described above and agrees that the treatment is of benefit to the patient, is the least restrictive option and the benefit outweighs the risk. This discussion should be recorded as part of the treatment plan attached to the Section 47 form.

Before prescribing read all the information above and below for cautions, contraindications and dose administration advice (take into account frailty when considering total daily dose). Ensure patients are closely monitored following administration of sedative medication. Emergency sedation should always be discussed with a registrar or consultant.

Antipsychotic medication

  • Different antipsychotic medications should never be given in combination unless under specialist psychiatry advice.
  • Be aware that antipsychotic medication can cause Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome (NMS) and acute dystonic reactions. NMS is a life-threatening neurological emergency characterised by high fever, confusion, rigidity, labile BP, sweating and tachycardia. If any of these signs develop, seek senior help immediately.
  • Do not give antipsychotic medication to patients with Parkinsonism or Lewy body dementia; consult guidance under benzodiazepine section below for these patients.


Stop and check as haloperidol is contraindicated in the following situations:

  • Prolonged QTc interval
  • In combination with other drugs that prolong the QTc interval
  • In patients with Parkinson's disease, Lewy body dementia, progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) and multiple system atrophy (MSA).

Prior to treatment (or as soon as possible afterwards if the patient is too agitated) record an ECG to check QT interval. Ensure modifiable risk factors for QTc prolongation are minimised e.g. electrolyte abnormalities (hypokalaemia, hypomagnesaemia, hypocalcaemia) and discontinue other drugs known to prolong QTc if possible. A list of drugs that can prolong QT interval can be found at Further information can also be found in the Medicines Update Extra (MUE 08) drug induced prolongation article available at

Start with the lowest clinically appropriate dose and titrate according to symptoms. Use the lower dose range in frail or elderly patients. Always use oral medication wherever possible and wait a minimum of 1 hour before repeat dosing. 

  • Haloperidol oral 500micrograms –1mg (maximum 2mg in 24 hours) or, only if oral route is not possible:
  • Haloperidol IM 500micrograms (maximum 2mg in 24 hours)

If haloperidol is contraindicated because the patient is already on drugs that can prolong the QT interval which cannot be stopped, consider risperidone but be aware that caution is still required and an ECG should be recorded and monitored during treatment. 

  • Risperidone oral 250-500micrograms (up to a maximum of 2mg in 24 hours). Use the lower dose range in frail or elderly patients.


If antipsychotic medication is contraindicated e.g. in Parkinson's disease, MSA, PSP or Lewy body dementia, consider benzodiazepines and contact the local movement disorder team as soon as possible for further advice. Use with caution in patients with respiratory impairment and be aware that benzodiazepines can have a paradoxical effect in delirium. If the patient does not improve or the disturbed behaviour gets worse, discuss with a senior or seek specialist advice before giving any further doses.

  • Lorazepam oral 500micrograms –1mg (maximum 2mg in 24 hours)* (use the lower dose range in frail or elderly patients) or only in exceptional circumstances if oral route not possible:
  • Midazolam IM 2mg (maximum 6mg in 24 hours)*

*Wait a minimum of 1 hour between doses and ensure that IV flumazenil is available in case of benzodiazepine induced respiratory depression. 


After administration of sedative medication, monitor observations and conscious level and check for side effects. If there is any deterioration seek senior help immediately. Once the acute situation has been stabilised, perform a thorough clinical assessment to ensure all potential underlying causes of delirium and acutely disturbed behaviour have been addressed. Ensure you handover to the patient's regular team if sedation is prescribed out of hours to ensure early review and follow-up.

The above is a guide to initial management. If these measures do not result in an improvement in the disturbed behaviour, speak to senior medical staff to discuss alternatives. Other drug options are available and specialist advice from psychiatry may be required.


Guideline reviewed: August 2022

Page last updated: September 2023