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Irritability is a feeling of agitation. When you’re irritable, you become frustrated or upset easily. You might experience it in response to stressful situations. It may also be a symptom of a mental or physical health condition.

Babies and young children often feel irritable, especially when they’re tired or sick. For example, children often become fussy when they have ear infections or stomach aches.

Adults can also feel irritable for a variety of reasons. If you feel irritable on a regular basis, make an appointment with your doctor. You may have an underlying condition that requires treatment.  

What causes irritability?

Many things can cause irritability. The causes can be divided into two general categories:  physical and psychological.

Some common psychological causes of irritability include:

  • stress
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • bipolar disorder
  • schizophrenia
  • autism

Some common physical causes include:

  • sleep deprivation
  • low blood sugar
  • ear infections
  • toothaches
  • diabetes
  • flu

Medical conditions that cause hormonal changes can also affect your mood. Examples include:

  • menopause
  • premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
  • polycystic ovary syndrome (POS)
  • hyperthyroidism
  • diabetes

You may also experience irritability as a side effect of medication that you’re taking. Other potential causes include:

  • drug use
  • alcoholism
  • nicotine withdrawal
  • caffeine withdrawal

Most people feel irritable from time to time. For example, it’s normal to feel cranky after a poor night’s rest.

Some people feel irritable on a more regular basis. If you’re one of these people, contact your doctor. They can help you identify potential causes of your irritability.

Symptoms that often accompany irritability

In some cases, your feelings of irritability may be accompanied or preceded by other symptoms.

For example, these symptoms might include:

  • sweating
  • racing heart
  • fast breathing
  • confusion
  • anger

If a hormonal imbalance is causing your irritability, you may have symptoms such as:

  • fever
  • headache
  • hot flashes
  • irregular menstrual cycles
  • reduced sex drive
  • hair loss

Diagnosing the cause of irritability

If you feel irritable on a regular basis, and you don’t know why, make an appointment with your doctor. They can help you identify possible causes. They can also discuss treatment options and strategies to manage your mood.

During your visit, your doctor will likely ask about your medical history, including any medications that you’re taking. They’ll also ask about your history of psychological conditions. Your lifestyle habits, such as sleeping patterns and alcohol consumption will likely be discussed. Your doctor will want to know about sources of stress in your life.

Depending on your symptoms and medical history, they may order one or more tests, including blood and urine analyses. The level of certain hormones in your blood may point to a hormonal imbalance. The level of glucose in your blood or urine may point to diabetes.

They may also refer you to a mental health professional for evaluation.

Treating the cause of irritability

Your doctor’s recommended treatment plan will depend on your specific diagnosis. The best way to treat irritability is to address its underlying cause.

If your doctor diagnoses you with a mental health condition, they may refer you to a specialist for counseling. Prescription medications may be recommended to help control your mood. Talk therapy and medications are often combined to treat mood disorders, such as depression.

If they suspect your irritability is caused by alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, or other drug withdrawal, your doctor may recommend a combination of talk therapy and medications. Together they can help control your cravings.

If you’re diagnosed with a hormonal imbalance, your doctor may recommend hormone replacement therapy. This treatment isn’t right for everyone. Never start taking hormone supplements without talking to your doctor first. Leave it to the medical experts to devise a treatment plan that’s right for you.

If you’re experiencing irritability as a symptom of an infection, it will likely resolve when your infection clears. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics or other medications to help treat it.

Your doctor may also recommend lifestyle changes to help control your mood. For example, they may encourage you to adjust your:

  • diet
  • exercise routine
  • sleep habits
  • stress management practices

Ask your doctor for more information about your diagnosis, treatment options, and long-term outlook.

Content licensed from:

Written by: April Kahn
Medically reviewed on: Oct 19, 2016: Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA, COI

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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