Irritability is a state of being overly sensitive in interactions with others. Adults who are irritable may easily become impatient or angry.
When a person is irritable, he or she may be responding to something that causes pain, concern, fright, or discomfort. In some cases, a serious medical condition can cause irritability.
Symptoms of irritability depend on the cause. When a healthcare provider hears that someone is irritable, he or she may want to know: if there is a known causehow the person is behavingwhen it beganhow long it has been going onwhether it is constant or comes and goeswhat the person's usual response to problems or pain isif anything makes it better or worseif it occurs only at certain times of the dayif there are any other symptoms, such as fever, stomach upset, pain, injury, depression, sadness, or weight lossif there is any history of any other illnesses, conditions, allergies, or surgerieswhat medications the person takesif the person is using drugs or alcohol
Other questions may be asked about eating and sleeping habits, activity level, and any other concerns the person or the family has.
Mild irritability in adults is common. It can be due to the person being tired or overworked, having a bad day, or just dealing with long lines and traffic. However, adults may also become irritable from a number of medical conditions, including: injury or infections of any part the bodyaddiction to or withdrawal from drugs, including alcohol, nicotine, or caffeinehead injury or intracerebral hemorrhage, which is bleeding inside the brainincreased intracranial pressure, which is increased pressure within the brain that can be caused by brain tumors or other conditionsinfections involving the brain, such as meningitis, an infection of the brain liningelder abusecancer, such as a brain tumorreaction to medications or vaccines, such as a flu shotany serious illness, such as liver disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney disease, or heart diseaseemotional or mental disorders, such as anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, depression, abnormal grief, or post-traumatic stress disorderheadaches, such as migraines or tension headachesautoimmune disorders, in which a person's immune system attacks his or her own bodyhormone imbalances, including premenstrual syndrome (PMS), diabetes, and hyperthyroidismpoisoning from toxic substances, such as lead poisoningvitamin or mineral deficienciesany other new or chronic illness
Avoiding people with colds and other infections may reduce the risk of irritability due to these causes. If possible, one should plan major life changes so that not too many of them occur at once. Many cases of irritability occur due to events that cannot be predicted beforehand and therefore cannot be prevented.
The healthcare provider begins the investigation of irritability with a history and physical exam. This may be all that is needed to make the diagnosis. In other cases, the healthcare provider may order tests such as: a complete blood count, or CBC, to detect infection x-ray tests, such as a chest x-ray, to help diagnose some infections thyroid function tests to check for abnormalities with the body's metabolismpsychological testing to check for mental or psychological impairments
Long-term effects depend on the cause of the irritability. If an infection is the cause, antibiotics may cure the infection and there are usually no long-term effects. A person who has another serious condition may need long-term treatment.
Irritability is contagious only in the sense that irritable behavior can put stress on others close to the person and cause them to become irritable as well. If an infection is the cause, the infection may be contagious.
Treatment depends on the cause of the irritability. Infections are often treated with antibiotics. Treatment for autoimmune disorders may include medications to reduce inflammation and suppress the immune system. If a medication is causing the irritability, it may be stopped. Medications, such as antidepressants, are often used for mood problems, such as depression.
Side effects depend on the treatments used for the irritability. For example, antibiotics can cause stomach upset, allergic reactions, and other effects.
In many cases, treatment "cures" the person of the irritability. Such a person may be well and able to return to normal activities. In other cases, the cause cannot be cured and needs further treatment.
Someone with irritability from a mild illness or infection can often monitor his or her own symptoms at home. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare provider. Other monitoring may be needed depending on the underlying cause.
Professional Guide to Diseases, Springhouse, 1995
Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, 1993.