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The One COVID-19 Side Effect That's "Terrifying" People

Neurological manifestations of coronavirus are terrifying patients and doctors alike

While most of us are familiar with the physical manifestations of severe COVID-19 infections, there is one neurological side effect of the virus plaguing hospitalized patients in an unimaginable and tortuous way: delirium. Early on in the pandemic, doctors started noticing coronavirus patients of all ages, suffering from terrifying visions—some that have continued long after their physical symptoms subsided. 

Delirium isn't anything new, most commonly experienced by older patients with dementia. However, doctors maintain that coronavirus-induced delirium is next-level, impacting people of all ages without any previous cognitive impairment. According to reports from hospitals and researchers suggest that approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of coronavirus patients in ICU's are experiencing them in some capacity. The New York Times reports that some experience "hyperactive delirium," paranoid hallucinations and agitation, others have "hypoactive delirium," internalized visions and confusion that cause patients to become withdrawn and incommunicative, while the unlucky ones experience both. 

"Terrifying and Disorienting"

The publication also points out that aside from being "terrifying and disorienting," there can be other repercussions as a result, including extended hospital stays, slowing recovery, and an increased risk of developing depression or post-traumatic stress. Research has also found that previously healthy older patients with delirium can develop dementia sooner than they otherwise would have and have an increased chance of dying sooner as well. 

"There's increased risk for temporary or even permanent cognitive deficits," Dr. Lawrence Kaplan, director of consultation liaison psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, explained to the NYT. "It is actually more devastating than people realize."

Why and how does COVID-19 provide the ingredients for delirium? According to experts, the recipe seems to include long stints on ventilators mixed with heavy sedatives and poor sleep. Other factors may include patients being mostly immobile, occasional restrainment to keep them from accidentally disconnecting tubes, and overall, being cut off from social contact due to the fact that their loved ones are not allowed to visit. "It's like the perfect storm to generate delirium, it really, really is," Dr. Sharon Inouye, a leading delirium expert, explained.

Dr. Sajan Patel, an assistant professor at University of California, San Francisco, added that the virus itself or the body's response to it may also trigger neurological effects, "flipping people into more of a delirium state." 

In their profile on COVID induced delirium, they highlighted a number of coronavirus patients who experienced traumatic delirium.

"I Was So Scared"

As part of her "nightmarish visions" Kim Victory was paralyzed on a bed and being burned alive, before being rescued. Then, she was turned into an ice sculpture on a fancy cruise ship buffet, followed by a stint as a subject of an experiment in a lab in Japan. She was also attacked by cats.  "It was so real, and I was so scared," she told the paper. Two months have passed since she left the hospital, but she is still feeling the wrath of delirium. "I feel like I'm going down a rabbit hole, and I don't know when I will be back to myself," she said.

After Ron Temko, a 69-year-old mortgage company executive, was on a ventilator for three weeks, he basically asked his family to kill him after a delirium-fueled delusion that he'd been abducted. "I was in a paranoiac phase where I thought there was some sort of conspiracy against me," he said. Other hallucinations included a rotating human head. "Every time it came around, someone put a nail in it, and I could see that the person was still alive," he said.

As for yourself, only leave the home if it's essential, wear a face covering, wash your hands frequently, practice social distancing, monitor your health and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these Things You Should Never Do During the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Leah Groth
Leah Groth has decades of experience covering all things health, wellness and fitness related. Read more about Leah
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