Irritability is defined as reacting strongly to stimuli that aren't worthy of that reaction. Characteristics include being easily annoyed & outbursts of rage.
For most of us, "irritability" is a negative trait and refers to a person who is overreacting to normal life. People we consider irritable react very strongly to minor inconveniences or what they consider inconveniences. Likewise, sometimes specific systems can be irritable, such as an "irritable bowel," where the intestinal tract is overreacting to stress, foods, medicines, germs, or other stimuli.
Common characteristics of irritability
If you're experiencing irritability, it can likely be described by:
- Feeling easily annoyed
- Being quick to anger
- Aggression, even when it's uncalled for
- Having a short fuse
- Outbursts of rage: Verbal and sometimes physical abuse of others is likely. Infants and young children may be hard to soothe.
Duration of irritability symptoms
Irritability may be temporary or persistent, depending on the underlying cause.
- Temporary: Inconsolability in infants may often fade as they get older, though sometimes this persists into childhood and may be an early indicator of mood disorders in adulthood.
- Persistent: Irritability tends to be a chronic condition in adults unless an underlying cause is addressed.
Who is most often affected by irritability
The following individuals are more likely to be affected by irritability.
- Infants: Especially those born to drug-addicted mothers.
- Anyone with chronic pain: From disease, injury, or emotional causes
- Older people: Especially those with health problems and/or psychological issues
- People withdrawing from drugs and medications
Is irritability serious?
Irritability may vary in severity.
- Less serious: Occasionally feeling frustrated with daily life, or simply "having a bad day," is completely normal. Being angry is also a normal emotion.
- More serious: Frequent irritability that is accompanied by verbal outbursts, raging, breaking objects, or even violence toward other people is a sign of physical and/or psychological illness. This is serious and needs attention.
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Many conditions can have irritability as a symptom. These can involve solely a physical or psychological cause, or sometimes a combination of the two.
Irritability may be due to physical causes, such as the following:
- Chronic pain from injury
- Chronic illness
- Medications and withdrawal
- Drug use or withdrawal: Especially of alcohol and opiates
- Infants born to drug-addicted mothers
Psychological causes of irritability may be due the following:
- Relationship conflicts
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Depression, once diagnosed, can often recur with new episodes. Sometimes these episodes can be similar to ones in the past, sometimes the symptoms can be different. It's good to be aware off the fact that people who had a depression before, remain vulnerable.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, abdominal pain (stomach ache), nausea, headache, stomach bloating
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Symptoms of menopause
Menopause is the name for the natural process by which the menstrual cycle (period) stops happening in a woman. Usually, the process is gradual (takes months or years) and occurs from the age of 45 to 55 years. Menopause is officially diagnosed once a woman stops having a period for 12 months continuously. A woman with menopause will notice a decrease in the number and regularity of her periods until they completely stop. In addition, she may notice a number of symptoms that occur as a result of decreased estrogen levels, such as hot flashes, changes in mood, sleep problems, vaginal dryness, changes in libido, and changes in sexual function. Certain medications exist that can decrease these symptoms.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, delay in or irregular periods, vaginal discharge, anxiety, trouble sleeping
Symptoms that always occur with symptoms of menopause: delay in or irregular periods
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a condition that can produce emotional and physical symptoms in women in the days leading up to their menstrual cycle. Common symptoms include bloating, cramping, headaches, irritability, fatigue, and sleep and appetite changes. These symptoms...
Depression is a mental disorder in which a person feels constantly sad, hopeless, discouraged, and loses interest in activities and life on more days than not. These symptoms interfere with daily life, work, and friendships.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, headache, anxiety, irritability
Symptoms that always occur with depression: depressed mood
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Mild chronic depression (dysthymia)
Mild chronic depression is also called dysthymia, dysthymic disorder, or persistent depressive disorder. It is a long-term, low-grade depression that may last for years and periodically swings from mild to severe, but never really lifts.
The cause of is not certain. Heredity and brain chemistry may make it more difficult to cope with stressful life events. Dysthymia often begins early in life and may appear in childhood, especially among those with other mental health disorders.
Symptoms include feeling hopeless and inadequate; loss of interest in normal activities; trouble sleeping; irritability; and difficulty relating to others.
Long-term depression can seriously affect anyone's quality of life. If there is talk of suicide, it should be considered a medical emergency. Take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination and blood testing to rule out any physical cause, and through psychological evaluation.
Treatment involves antidepressant medication and "talk therapy," as well as help with life management and coping skills.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, irritability, difficulty concentrating, impaired social or occupational functioning
Symptoms that always occur with mild chronic depression (dysthymia): depressed mood
Symptoms that never occur with mild chronic depression (dysthymia): severe sadness
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Premenstrual dysphoric disorder
Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) describes a set of severe, debilitating symptoms that appear seven to ten days before a woman's menstrual period begins.
It may be caused by an abnormal reaction to the natural female hormone changes, creating a deficiency in the mood-regulating brain chemical serotonin.
Risk factors include a personal or family history of PMDD, postpartum depression, and/or general depression, as well as cigarette smoking.
Physical symptoms include headaches, abdominal pain and bloating, back pain, and breast tenderness. Psychological symptoms include severe depression, anxiety, and irritability.
Because symptoms tend to get worse over time, medical help should be sought so that quality of life can be improved.
If symptoms persist for a year or more, a diagnosis of PMDD may be made.
Treatment includes improving the diet, adding vitamin and mineral supplements, and getting regular exercise.
Birth control pills to regulate the menstrual cycle may be prescribed, along with anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen. Antidepressants in the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor class (SSRI) are helpful in some cases.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, stomach bloating, anxiety, depressed mood, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps)
Symptoms that always occur with premenstrual dysphoric disorder:impaired social or occupational functioning, symptoms of depression, anxiety and emotional lability
Symptoms that never occur with premenstrual dysphoric disorder:constant sadness, disapearance of periods for over a year
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Post-concussion syndrome is a set of symptoms that can occur after a head injury. A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury that involves confusion and memory loss, with or without a loss of consciousness. Post-concussion syndrome typically occurs after concuss...
Seasonal affective disorder
Seasonal affective disorder is mood disorder marked by seasonal onset. While summertime sadness is possible, the vast majority of seasonal affective disorder begins in the winter and resolves by summer.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, loss of appetite, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, sleep disturbance
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Insomnia disorder is a short-term or chronic condition whereby individuals have difficulty
sleeping. Other common symptoms include fatigue, difficulty with concentration, social
dysfunction, reduced motivation, and behavioral changes. The short-term form of
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a relatively common condition, especially in obese adults. It refers to obstruction (blockage) of the airway during sleep. This obstruction is usually caused by the back of the tongue and the muscles of the palate relaxing and falling ...
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Irritability treatments and relief
When it is an emergency
Seek immediate treatment in the emergency room or call 911 if:
- You feel severely depressed and are having thoughts of suicide
- You feel very angry and are having thoughts of harming others
- Someone you know is suicidal, homicidal, or threatened by someone else
When to see a doctor for irritability
You should schedule an appointment for chronic irritability, anger, and frustration. The most important part of dealing with irritability is finding the underlying cause.
Medical treatments for irritability
Your primary medical provider can refer you for treatment to the appropriate specialist for treatment of physical causes, such as the following.
- Testing: An internist can test for underlying illnesses.
- Chronic pain: A pain management specialist can treat cases of chronic pain.
- Nutrition: A nutritionist can advise about possible deficiencies.
- Addiction: A drug and alcohol specialist can help you treat addiction.
- Psychological treatments: You can also be referred for psychological causes of irritability. A psychiatrist treats cases of chemically based mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. A psychologist can work with you to treat depression and anxiety. A counselor helps with any relationship issues you may be experiencing, including marriage and familial relationships.
At-home irritability treatments
Remedies for irritability that you can try at home include the following:
- General habit adjustments: Improvements in sleep, diet, and exercise can go a long way toward relieving stress.
- Make time to enjoy yourself: Making more time for friends and a normal social life can also help greatly in improving mood and easing depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
FAQs about irritability
Here are some frequently asked questions about irritability.
What are the common causes of irritability?
Irritability may be caused by many things. Most commonly, it is caused by emotional duress or stress. It can also be a sign of systemic physical illness or mental illness. Irritability is difficult to diagnose as individuals have different thresholds of irritability and/or expressions of being irritated.
Can anxiety cause anger and irritability?
Yes. Irritability is defined as an increased propensity toward anger and can be a manifestation of anxiety. When individuals experience something that makes them anxious or afraid, increased amount of stress hormones (e.g. cortisol) get excreted. These hormones activate a "flight or flight" system and cause an individual to respond with emotions such as anger or irritability.
Is irritability a sign of depression?
Irritability can be a sign of depression. Studies have found that individuals with clinically diagnosed depression have a higher level of stress hormones than those without depression. These stress hormones can cause an individual to more easily feel angry, anxious, and irritated. Medical professionals can use this observed increase in irritability as a marker of someone with depression.
When is irritability a sign of a more serious condition?
Irritability may be a sign of a more serious condition if it is accompanied by any of the following phenomena: a sudden change in personality, any non-characteristic or dangerous actions to one's self or others, other persistent physical symptoms, changes in senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing) or changes in physical motion.
What type of behavior characterized irritability?
Irritability in children is characterized by an increased level of general hostility, or increased frequency of crying, fussing, hitting, biting, or kicking. In adults, irritability can manifest as increased level of hostility, decreased threshold for hostility, or increased propensity to worry.
Questions your doctor may ask about irritability
- Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
- Do you have trouble sleeping?
- Are you having difficulty concentrating or thinking through daily activities?
- Are you sleepy during the day?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
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- Mood-Related Disorders. Hazelden Publishing: Behavioral Health Evolution. Published 2016. BHEvolution Link.
- Leibenluft E, Stoddard J. The Developmental Psychopathology of Irritability. Development and Psychopathology. 2013;25(4 Pt 2):1473-1487. NCBI Link.
- Balbuena L, Bowen R, Baetz M, Marwaha S. Mood Instability and Irritability as Core Symptoms of Major Depression: An Exploration Using Rasch Analysis. Front Psychiatry. 2016;7:174. Frontiers Media Link.
- Mood Disorders. MentalHealth.gov. Updated August 22, 2017. MentalHealth.gov Link.
- Suppes T, Eberhard J, Lemming O, Young AH, McIntyre RS. Anxiety, Irritability, and Agitation as Indicators of Bipolar Mania with Depressive Symptoms: A Post Hoc Analysis of Two Clinical Trials. International Journal of Bipolar Disorders. 2017;5(1):36. NCBI Link.
- Fava M, Hwang I, Rush AJ, Sampson N, Walters EE, Kessler RC. The Importance of Irritability as a Symptom of Major Depressive Disorder: Results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Molecular Psychiatry. 2009;15(8):856-867. NCBI Link.