Sepsis and Hallucinations

Hallucinations are the perception of something that doesn’t exist. They can be auditory (heard), visual (seen), tactile (felt) or olfactory (smelled).

These hallucinations can have many causes. The most common causes are recreational drugs and dementia or delirium but they can also be caused by high fevers or certain illnesses. Some people who have survived serious, life-threatening illnesses, like septic shock, report having very vivid hallucinations while they were in the intensive care unit (ICU).

Hallucinations are often very disturbing and the memories can last, but scientists don’t understand them. A few researchers are looking at how often hallucinations occur among critically ill patients. One study looked at 289 critically ill patients who had been in an ICU for 24 hours or longer and been sedated and intubated (placed on a ventilator). The researchers found that 9.3% of the patient had nightmares and 6.6% said that they had experienced hallucinations. For some people, the hallucinations continue, even after they are no longer in the ICU environment. Another study found that after leaving the critical care area, some patients experienced, “amnesia, continued hallucinations or flashbacks, anxiety, depression, and dreams and nightmares.”

Hallucinations are also a change in mental status. This could be a sign of sepsis.

Sepsis, which was often called blood poisoning, is the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Like strokes or heart attacks, sepsis is a medical emergency that requires rapid diagnosis and treatment.

Suggested Citation:
Sepsis Alliance. Sepsis and Hallucinations. 2024. https://www.sepsis.org/sepsisand/hallucinations/

Updated January 2024.

 

More About Hallucinations

Possible Causes

There are theories as to why patients may experience hallucinations, but there are no clear explanations yet. Patients in an ICU are not only fighting a very serious illness, they don’t get a lot of rest. Nursing care is necessary and frequent, and lights are on in the hallways. Even with dimmed lights, patients might not be able to sleep. There is a lot of noise that comes from nurses moving about and talking, machines operating, and alarms beeping. The constant stimulation often causes sleep deprivation. Serious lack of sleep can cause psychological distress.

Treatment

If you are having a hard time dealing with the after effects of sepsis, which can include bad dreams, hallucinations, even memories of the hallucinations, this could be part of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. There are counselors and therapists who specialize in treating PTSD. They may use a variety of methods, including cognitive therapy, tapping techniques, or eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR). Counseling can be an important component of full recovery from sepsis.

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So I have a long term condition I was diagnosed with at 18 called ‘familial visceral neuropathy’. The main problem I always had throughout my late teens and 20s was pain. I had years and years of horrific stomach pains, on and off for the best part of 10 years. I tried everything to reduce the pain and would always try to still live my life and do the things I wanted to do, trying to find ways to deal with it. Sometimes successfully and other times not. Sometimes though I had to miss things because the pain was too ... Read Full Story

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In 2018 started to experience swollen foot, dizziness and hallucinations. Went to a number of specialists, including labs and imaging. My foot hurt the most and all Doctors said it was diabetes and to keep it raised. (Sepsis and Hallucinations) Several blamed it on drinking which I do admit was issue, however I was not and still not diabetic. Finally one day in Nov could not get out of bed for appointment. Grown daughter was at home checking up on me and Mother. She called a visiting nurse and they did come that day. Within minutes of checking my vitals ... Read Full Story

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My name is Poppy, and I want to tell you my full story to make sure you know the signs of sepsis- it almost took my life. I was 36 weeks pregnant. My breathing had been shallow for a week and it hurt to move; to describe the pain, it felt like I had been kicked in the ribs, like an awful stitch or heartburn every time I moved. It was becoming hard even just to sit up in bed in the morning because every moment sent ripples of pain through my body. (Sepsis and Pregnancy & Childbirth) I knew ... Read Full Story

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Hallucinations