Certain illnesses, chronic disorders and injuries that affect brain function can lead to an altered mental status (AMS). This condition causes changes in consciousness and symptoms that can affect many organ systems. Many causes are treatable and don’t affect long-term well-being.
An altered mental status (AMS) isn’t a specific disease. It’s a change in mental function that stems from illnesses, disorders and injuries affecting your brain. It leads to changes in awareness, movement and behaviors.
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There are three types:
In people with dementia, progressive mental decline is the natural course of the disease.
A sudden altered mental status, such as delirium and psychosis, can be due to issues with nearly any organ system. Potential causes include:
You may experience a broad range of altered mental status symptoms. They include:
Diagnosing an altered mental status involves a thorough evaluation to determine the cause. In many cases, this takes place in a hospital emergency department.
Emergency care providers tailor your assessment based on altered mental status symptoms and how severe they are. They start by asking you (or a loved one if you can’t communicate) about your medical history. The initial physical exam often involves:
The initial assessment helps emergency care providers quickly determine the severity of your symptoms and start lifesaving treatment, if necessary. To pinpoint the cause, you may need additional testing, such as:
The best treatments for you depend on the medical or neurological cause and type of AMS.
Care may include:
Some causes of altered mental status, such as dementia, can’t be prevented. Others may be possible to avoid.
You can lower your risk of AMS by:
For altered mental status due to delirium or psychosis, the outlook is good. Symptoms typically fade away once you receive treatment. If AMS is due to dementia, treatments can stabilize life-threatening issues, but mental decline will continue to progress.
For delirium or psychosis, once you receive treatment, life will likely return to normal after a short recovery. It’s possible to experience AMS in the future, so it’s essential to follow care recommendations. For example, AMS due to hypoglycemia may require more frequent glucose monitoring to keep blood sugar levels within a healthy range.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Altered mental status is a change in mental function. It stems from certain illnesses, disorders and injuries affecting your brain. The change is often temporary, but can quickly become life-threatening. It’s essential to seek emergency medical care if you, or a loved one, show signs of this condition.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/02/2022.
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