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Schizophrenia and Brief Psychotic Disorder

As the name suggests, brief psychotic disorder is a short-term illness with psychotic symptoms. The symptoms often come on suddenly, but last for less than one month, after which the person usually recovers completely. There are three basic forms of brief psychotic disorder:

  • Brief psychotic disorder with obvious stressor (also called brief reactive psychosis): This type occurs shortly after and often in response to a trauma or major stress, such as the death of a loved one, an accident, assault, or a natural disaster. Most cases of brief psychotic disorder occur as a reaction to a very disturbing event.
  • Brief psychotic disorder without obvious stressor: With this type, there is no apparent trauma or stress that triggers the illness.
  • Brief psychotic disorder with postpartum onset: This type occurs in women, usually within 4 weeks of having a baby.

What Are the Symptoms of Brief Psychotic Disorder?

The most obvious symptoms of brief psychotic disorder include:

  • Hallucinations: Hallucinations are sensory perceptions of things that aren't actually present, such as hearing voices, seeing things that aren't there, or feeling sensations on your skin even though nothing is touching your body.
  • Delusions: These are false beliefs that the person refuses to give up, even in the face of contradictory facts.

Other symptoms of brief psychotic disorder include:

  • Disorganized thinking
  • Speech or language that doesn't make sense
  • Unusual behavior and dress
  • Problems with memory
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits, energy level, or weight
  • Inability to make decisions

What Causes Brief Psychotic Disorder?

The exact cause of brief psychotic disorder is not known. One theory suggests a genetic link, because the disorder is more common in people who have family members with mood disorders, such as depression or bipolar disorder. Another theory suggests that the disorder is caused by poor coping skills, as a defense against or escape from a particularly frightening or stressful situation. These factors may create a vulnerability to develop brief psychotic disorder. In most cases, the disorder is triggered by a major stress or traumatic event. Childbirth may trigger the disorder in some women.

How Common Is Brief Psychotic Disorder?

Brief psychotic disorder is uncommon. It generally first occurs in early adulthood (20s and 30s), and is more common in women than in men. People who have a personality disorder -- such as antisocial personality disorder or paranoid personality disorder -- are more prone to developing brief psychotic disorder.

How Is Brief Psychotic Disorder Diagnosed?

If symptoms of brief psychotic disorder are present, the doctor will perform a complete medical history and physical exam. Although there are no laboratory tests to specifically diagnose brief psychotic disorder, the doctor may use various tests -- such as brain imaging (e.g., MRI scans) or blood tests -- to rule out physical illness as the cause of the symptoms.

If the doctor finds no physical reason for the symptoms, he or she may refer the person to a psychiatrist or psychologist, mental health professionals who are trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses. Psychiatrists and psychologists use specially designed interview and assessment tools to evaluate a person for a psychotic disorder. 

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