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Irritability In Adults

Definition

Irritability is a state of being overly sensitive in interactions with others. Adults who are irritable may easily become impatient or angry.

What is going on in the body?

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.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

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 body
  • addiction to or withdrawal from drugs, including alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine
  • head injury or intracerebral hemorrhage, which is bleeding inside the brain
  • increased intracranial pressure, which is increased pressure within the brain that can be caused by brain tumors or other conditions
  • infections involving the brain, such as meningitis, an infection of the brain lining
  • elder abuse
  • cancer, such as a brain tumor
  • reaction to medications or vaccines, such as a flu shot
  • any serious illness, such as liver disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney disease, or heart disease
  • emotional or mental disorders, such as anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, depression, abnormal grief, or post-traumatic stress disorder
  • headaches, such as migraines or tension headaches
  • autoimmune disorders, in which a person's immune system attacks his or her own body
  • hormone imbalances, including premenstrual syndrome (PMS), diabetes, and hyperthyroidism
  • poisoning from toxic substances, such as lead poisoning
  • vitamin or mineral deficiencies
  • any other new or chronic illness

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

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.

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

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 metabolism
  • psychological testing to check for mental or psychological impairments

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

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.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

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.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

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

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Side effects depend on the treatments used for the irritability. For example, antibiotics can cause stomach upset, allergic reactions, and other effects.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

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.

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

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.

Sources

Professional Guide to Diseases, Springhouse, 1995

Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, 1993.

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