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What are the Most Common Causes of Psychosis?

Allison Boelcke
Allison Boelcke

Psychosis is a mental health condition in which a person disengages from reality. He or she may experience hallucinations, hear voices, think he or she is another person, or have disorganized speech or thought processes. The condition is generally treated with antipsychotic medications to eliminate the hallucinations and other symptoms. If left untreated, psychosis can prevent a person from being able to function in everyday life and may lead to injuries or even suicide. There are a wide variety of causes of psychosis, but it is often the result of an underlying physical or mental health issue.

One of the most common causes of psychosis is conditions affecting the brain, such as Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer’s disease. Huntington’s disease is a genetic condition in which brain cells deteriorate, ultimately causing severe difficulty controlling movement, speaking, or psychosis. Parkinson’s disease is also a degenerative condition that primarily affects the nervous system and causes similar symptoms to Huntington’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease, a brain disease in which brain cells degenerate and ultimately destroy memory, judgment, and other cognitive processes, can also end up causing a break from reality.

Paranoia is a common symptom of psychosis.
Paranoia is a common symptom of psychosis.

Psychiatric disorders are also another one of the possible causes of psychosis. Schizophrenia, a psychiatric disorder in which brain chemicals are imbalanced, typically has psychosis as its main symptom. This detachment from reality can also be a symptom of bipolar disorder, in which moods shift dramatically from depression to mania, but it is not as characteristic of the disorder as it is with schizophrenia. Depression can also cause psychosis, but the break from reality may not be as serious as it is with schizophrenia. A depressed person may be aware that the delusions he or she is experiencing are not actually real, whereas a schizophrenic generally cannot grasp that the hallucinations are not real.

Cocaine use may cause psychosis.
Cocaine use may cause psychosis.

Certain medications may also contribute to the causes of psychosis. Stimulant medications, such as amphetamines, are generally used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder(ADHD) and work by temporarily increasing the amounts of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a brain chemical responsible for a variety of functions, such as controlling attention span, feelings of pleasure, and mood. If dopamine is increased too much, it can result in psychosis. Steroid medications, which imitate the effects of naturally occurring hormones in the body, are used to treat conditions, such as asthma, skin rashes, and arthritis and may cause psychosis as a side effect. Overdosing on drugs, especially cocaine, or abusing alcohol can also cause this detachment from reality.

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Discussion Comments


An older person suffering from a psychotic episode may not have dementia; it may be a condition called hospital psychosis, or it could be delirium from a drug interaction and/or dehydration. The elderly are extremely susceptible to dehydration, and some medications may not have the same effects as they do on younger people. Sleep medicine is a good example. Some sleep medications that are fine to give someone who is 40, for instance, will make a75-year-old crazy.

Hospital psychosis is a disturbing condition that can occur when an older person has been in the hospital for a few days, or in a younger person who has been hospitalized for several weeks. People simply lose touch with reality. They may hallucinate, and these hallucinations can be visual or auditory, or both, they may become extremely paranoid, and may even lose touch with what year it is.

It is profoundly troubling to a family to see a loved one who was fine two days before, become completely detached from reality. Some doctors recognize this, while some do not. There should be more awareness of this because it is so very common.

It is not clear why elderly people are so susceptible to hospital psychosis, but it probably has something to do with their day/night cues being altered, medication and the constant activity that occurs in a hospital.

The good news is, once they return home and to their normal routines, the psychosis disappears and the person is almost always back to normal in a day or two.

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    • Paranoia is a common symptom of psychosis.
      By: Kevin Daugherty
      Paranoia is a common symptom of psychosis.
    • Cocaine use may cause psychosis.
      By: HamsterMan
      Cocaine use may cause psychosis.
    • Psychosis is a major symptom of schizophrenia.
      By: fasphotographic
      Psychosis is a major symptom of schizophrenia.