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Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Nov 14;11:CD004770. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD004770.pub2.

Drug therapy for delirium in terminally ill adult patients.

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Marie Curie Palliative Care Research Unit, UCL Mental Health Sciences Unit, University College Medical School, London, UK.



Delirium is a syndrome characterised by a disturbance of consciousness (often fluctuating), cognition and perception. In terminally ill patients it is one of the most common causes of admission to clinical care. Delirium may arise from any number of causes and treatment should be directed at addressing these causes rather than the symptom cluster. In cases where this is not possible, or treatment does not prove successful, the use of drug therapy to manage the symptoms may become necessary. This is an update of the review published on 'Drug therapy for delirium in terminally ill adult patients' in The Cochrane Library 2004, Issue 2 ( Jackson 2004).


To evaluate the effectiveness of drug therapies to treat delirium in adult patients in the terminal phase of a disease.


We searched the following sources: CENTRAL (The Cochrane Library 2012, Issue 7), MEDLINE (1966 to 2012), EMBASE (1980 to 2012), CINAHL (1982 to 2012) and PSYCINFO (1990 to 2012).


Prospective trials with or without randomisation or blinding involving the use of drug therapies for the treatment of delirium in adult patients in the terminal phase of a disease.


Two authors independently assessed trial quality using standardised methods and extracted trial data. We collected outcomes related to efficacy and adverse effects.


One trial met the criteria for inclusion. In the 2012 update search we retrieved 3066 citations but identified no new trials. The included trial evaluated 30 hospitalised AIDS patients receiving one of three agents: chlorpromazine, haloperidol and lorazepam. The trial under-reported key methodological features. It found overall that patients in the chlorpromazine group and those in the haloperidol group had fewer symptoms of delirium at follow-up (to below the diagnostic threshold using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) and that both were equally effective (at two days mean difference (MD) 0.37; 95% confidence interval (CI) -4.58 to 5.32; between two and six days MD -0.21; 95% CI -5.35 to 4.93). Chlorpromazine and haloperidol were found to be no different in improving cognitive status in the short term (at 48 hours) but at subsequent follow-up cognitive status was reduced in those taking chlorpromazine. Improvements from baseline to day two for patients randomised to lorazepam were not apparent. All patients on lorazepam (n = 6) developed adverse effects, including oversedation and increased confusion, leading to trial drug discontinuation.


There remains insufficient evidence to draw conclusions about the role of drug therapy in the treatment of delirium in terminally ill patients. Thus, practitioners should continue to follow current clinical guidelines. Further research is essential.

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