As scientists continue to examine the symptoms of COVID-19, they’ve begun to track how it affects the body as well as the mind. While it mainly impairs lung function and causes shortness of breath, they’ve also found surprising (and severe) side effects like seizures, strokes, and brain damage. In fact, the BBC reported that more than 300 studies from around the world have documented “neurological abnormalities” in hospitalized coronavirus patients, including one major problem: extreme delirium.
This horrifying phenomenon can include nightmarish hallucinations, paranoia, and confusion. At first, elderly patients were more likely to experience this traumatic condition, but now, more doctors are finding that coronavirus patients of all ages—and with no previous cognitive issues—are encountering it. Researchers have discovered that 65 percent to 75 percent of coronavirus patients in intensive care units (ICUs) have been diagnosed with delirium.
For one study, which has not been peer-reviewed and was published in pre-print form on medRxiv, medical experts examined coronavirus patients at two large trauma centers affiliated with the Indiana University School of Medicine. From their analysis, the authors concluded that delirium typically lasts up to one week, and most cases were severe. Even more troubling, they realized that mechanical ventilation increased the risk of developing delirium, and that the mortality rate is higher in patients with delirium.
Additionally, heavy sedatives contribute to memory loss, delirium, and hallucinations—which can then result in long-term problems like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, Jaspal Singh, MD, MHS, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist at Atrium Health told CNN. Delirious patients often “don’t realize they’re in the hospital,” Singh said. “They don’t recognize their family.”
It also doesn’t help that coronavirus patients have limited visiting hours with loved ones due to social distancing and safety protocols. A recent article in Critical Care called the ICU a “delirium factory” due to extreme isolation, lack of human contact, and immobility while using a ventilator.
“It’s like the perfect storm to generate delirium, it really, really is,” Sharon Inouye, MD, founder of AGS CoCare: HELP, a hospital program to prevent delirium and functional decline, told The New York Times. And for more ways coronavirus could negatively affect you, COVID-19 Does This Horrifying Thing to Your Body, Says Medical Examiner.