May 1, 2008 -- Nearly one in three children admitted to a hospital's pediatric intensive care unit will have delusional memories, according to a study published in the May issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.
Such haunting memories may make a child more likely to develop posttraumatic stress. Delusional memories included visual, auditory, and tactile hallucinations.
"I have worked for 16 years in pediatric intensive care and have seen a considerable number of children in distress, but have found that there is very little in the literature about children's experiences," study researcher Gillian Colville, MPhil, a clinical psychologist at St. George's Hospital in London, says in a news release.
Delusional memories are common among adults in hospital intensive care units. To determine if children in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) shared the same experience, Colville and colleagues evaluated 102 children over age 7 who were discharged from the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital's PICU over a period of a year and a half.
The children participated in a posttraumatic stress screening test three months after leaving the PICU. Two out of three of the children remembered something factual about their stay at the hospital, usually a family member's visit. However, one out of three reported "overwhelmingly disturbing and frightening" delusional memories, including hallucinations. The children who had delusional memories had the highest scores on the posttraumatic stress screening exams.
"These findings are interesting because it has been assumed that the actual experiences in the PICU would be more likely to lead to posttraumatic stress symptoms following discharge," Colville says in a news release. "However, our results indicate that posttraumatic stress symptoms are associated with delusional memories rather than factual ones."
According to the researchers, children who received opiates and benzodiazepines for more than two days were five times as likely to report having had delusions or hallucinations. Delusional memories were also noted in children who were on these medications less than two days.
Colville says her findings warrant further study to see if changing sedatives, the weaning schedule, or the physical environment might produce fewer delusional memories.
"But above all, medical professionals and families should be made aware of the possibility that children may have these disturbing hallucinatory experiences, and greater efforts should be made to monitor their psychological adjustment after PICU," she says.