What Is a Hallucination?

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A hallucination is the experience of sensing something that isn't really present in the environment, but is instead created by the mind. In fact, the word “hallucination” means “to wander mentally” in Latin. Hallucinations can be seen, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted, and usually seem very vivid to the person experiencing it.

While some hallucinations can be pleasant, others can be described as frightening, alarming, or disruptive. Hallucinations can occur in people with psychiatric conditions, like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, but they can also happen as a side effect of certain medications or illnesses like epilepsy.

Hallucinations

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Types of Hallucination

Hallucinations can happen through any of the five senses, though the most common type of hallucination affects your hearing:

  • Auditory hallucinations involve hearing voices or other sounds that have no physical source. This could include hearing a voice speak to you, or experiencing a distorted sound. The voices can be positive, negative, or neutral, and sometimes, they command someone to do something. The sounds can be anything from footsteps to music or tapping.
  • Visual hallucinations happen when a person sees something that isn’t real. This ranges from people, patterns, lights, or other objects. For example, this might include seeing someone who's not really in the room, or seeing flashing lights that aren't actually there.
  • Tactile hallucinations are feeling sensations or movement on your body. In this instance, you might feel the imagined sensation of bugs crawling under your skin, or a person's hands on your body.
  • Olfactory hallucinations involve smelling something that doesn’t have a physical source. The smell could be an unpleasant, bad odor, or it could be enjoyable, such as the sweet smell of perfume.
  • Gustatory hallucinations are when you experience a taste in your mouth that has no physical source. The taste can be strange or pleasant. Sometimes, gustatory hallucinations are described as having a metallic taste, and can be common for people with epilepsy.

Hallucinations can sometimes be confused with illusions, which are defined as misinterpretations or distortions of a real stimulus. For example, seeing a dog in the room where there is not one would be a hallucination. Mistaking a person for a dog would be considered an illusion.

Hallucination Symptoms

There are many symptoms that can happen with hallucination, and they depend on the type of hallucination you’re experiencing. For example, you may notice:

  • Feeling sensations in or on the body
  • Hearing sounds such as footsteps or music
  • Hearing voices that may be positive or negative
  • Seeing objects or people
  • Smelling an unpleasant or pleasant odor
  • Tasting something in your mouth

It's also possible to experience hallucinations as you're trying to fall asleep, known as hypnagogic hallucinations. This form of hallucination affects up to 30% of the general population.

Causes

Hallucinations are typically thought of as being linked to psychiatric (or mental) conditions, but there are actually a range of causes for hallucinations that can be grouped into three main categories of psychiatric, medical, and substance use-related causes.

Psychiatric Causes

Mental conditions are among the most common cause of hallucinations. These can include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and dementia. Researchers estimate that 60% to 80% of people with schizophrenia experience auditory hallucinations.

Medical Causes

Medical conditions can cause hallucinations, including:

  • High fevers, particularly in children and older adults
  • Migraines
  • Seizures
  • Epilepsy
  • Vision and hearing loss
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • Brain tumors
  • Kidney failure
  • Sleep disorders such as sleep paralysis and severe sleep deprivation

Substance Use-Related Causes

Hallucinations can happen under the influence of alcohol and drugs, especially substances like cocaine, LSD, and PCP. They may also occur during withdrawal from alcohol and certain other drugs.

But in addition to drugs of abuse, certain medications taken for physical and mental health conditions can also cause hallucinations.

For example, medications for Parkinson’s disease, depression, psychosis, and epilepsy may sometimes trigger hallucination symptoms.

Note that hallucinations can sometimes be a precursor to hearing loss. Speak with your healthcare provider if you begin to experience any related symptoms.

Diagnosis

Hallucinations can be disturbing and bothersome, so it's important to get a diagnosis from your healthcare provider to nail down the cause of your hallucinations. Your healthcare provider or other healthcare professional will want to discuss your symptoms, medical history, and lifestyle habits as they relate to hallucination before naming a diagnosis.

They’ll be looking to rule out medical conditions like seizures, migraines, and sleep disorders. This healthcare provider's visit will likely include a physical exam, and potentially diagnostic tests such as:

  • Blood tests to check for any substances or medical-related causes
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) to check for seizures or abnormal brain activity
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look for evidence of structural brain issues, such as a tumor or stroke

Following the visit with your primary care healthcare provider, you may be referred to a psychiatrist, neurologist, or other practitioner depending on the findings related to the cause of your hallucinations.

Treatment

The type of treatment recommended for hallucinations will depend on the kind of hallucination you're experiencing, the underlying cause, and your overall health.

In general, it's likely that your healthcare provider will recommend a multidisciplinary approach, meaning that your treatment plan may include a combination of medication, therapy, and self-help, or other means of support.

Medication

Antipsychotic medications can sometimes be effective at treating types of hallucinations, either by getting rid of them altogether, reducing their frequency, or producing a calming effect that makes them less disturbing.

For certain patients with Parkinson's disease, Nuplazid (pimavanserin)—the first drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat hallucinations in this population—may be an option.

Therapy

Certain types of psychotherapy—sometimes referred to as "talk therapy"—can be helpful for patients experiencing hallucinations, where a trained psychotherapist uses a range of techniques and strategies to help you navigate the condition.

Techniques may focus on engaging curiosity around the details of the symptoms and normalizing the experience.

Self-Help

In addition to leaning on trusted friends and family members to support you during hallucination episodes, there are some recommended self-help strategies that could help, especially with auditory hallucinations:

  • Exercising
  • Humming or singing a repetitive song
  • Listening to music
  • Ignoring the voices
  • Reading
  • Talking with others

It's also possible that your healthcare provider will suggest lifestyle or behavioral modifications, such as getting more sleep or drinking less alcohol to improve your hallucinations.

Coping

Living and coping with hallucinations will require an effort on your part, and it may also involve some assistance from your inner circle. The people you surround yourself with will want to be cautious of dismissing your concerns about hallucinations, and instead providing a supportive, validating presence.

Remember that an environment that's too loud or chaotic can play a role in worsening hallucinations. You'll want to make sure your surroundings induce calm so as not to increase the likelihood of a hallucination.

You may also find that maintaining a day-to-day schedule can help you feel grounded and secure in a reliable routine. If your healthcare provider recommends keeping a record of when and where your hallucinations occur, this may also help provide a sense of order to your hallucination experiences.  

If you or a loved one is experiencing a health emergency, seek medical attention immediately. For more mental health support and resources, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 or via their website.

A Word From Verywell

If you’re experiencing hallucinations, and you’re unsure why, just know that you're not alone. It's important that you feel comfortable in bringing this issue up with your healthcare provider. Research shows that hallucinations are underreported, which could hinder necessary treatment and diagnosis of underlying conditions.

It's also worth noting that extreme physical or mental stress and grief can trigger hallucinations. As some experts point out, hallucinations involving a loved one who's passed away can be a part of the grieving process, though sometimes symptoms of grief overlap can overlap with depression.

To be sure, talk to your healthcare provider to make sure you receive all of the medical support needed on your journey to finding answers for your hallucinations.

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16 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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