Some Seniors With COVID-19 Have This Unusual Symptom

Sick senior man wearing a mask
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More than one-quarter of seniors admitted to emergency departments and eventually diagnosed with COVID-19 initially displayed symptoms of delirium, recent research has found.

The study published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open also found that a delirium diagnosis was the main presenting symptom for 16% of such patients. And of those patients who initially displayed symptoms of delirium, 37% had no typical COVID-19 symptoms, such as fever or shortness of breath.

The surprising findings suggest that delirium — a symptom not commonly associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus — may indicate the possible presence of the coronavirus in patients who otherwise do not appear to have symptoms suggestive of coronavirus infection.

Properly diagnosing COVID-19 is crucial in older patients. Adults aged 65 years and older have accounted for more than 80% of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., despite that the age group accounts for just 16% of the U.S. population, according to Hebrew SeniorLife, a geriatric care organization affiliated with Harvard Medical School.

Delirium is a state of confusion characterized by several symptoms. Those most common among the patients in the study include:

  • Impaired consciousness
  • Disorientation
  • Inattention
  • Disorganized thinking

In reaching their conclusions, researchers examined 817 patients age 65 or older who were admitted to one of seven emergency departments across the U.S. and diagnosed with COVID-19. Their average age was about 78.

The findings should change how health care professionals evaluate older patients for possible coronavirus infection, says Dr. Sharon K. Inouye, senior author of the study, director of the Aging Brain Center at Hebrew SeniorLife, and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School:

“This study demonstrates that delirium is not only a common symptom of COVID-19, but also may be the leading and possibly sole symptom in older persons. Thus, delirium should be considered an important presenting symptom of COVID-19.”

The study authors also note that although delirium is a common symptom in older adults with severe disease who visit an emergency department, it goes undetected in two-thirds of all cases.

Delirium is not the only unusual symptom that seniors display when they are infected with the coronavirus. For more, check out “Seniors, Don’t Ignore These 6 Unusual Symptoms of COVID-19.”

For more on the coronavirus, check out “12 Diseases That Are Common in Seniors Who Get COVID-19.”

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