Sensory hallucinations are visions or sounds that a person experiences that are not really there or that are distorted. In a way, they are the brain’s credible lies to the eyes or the ears. Hallucinations can also affect a person's sense of touch and may include things like feeling bugs crawling all over the body. These experiences are completely believable, and they can be very frightening for those undergoing them.
Common causes of sensory hallucinations are schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, the manic stage of bipolar disorder, and taking drugs with hallucinogenic properties, like LSD. Other prescribed medications like morphine can cause temporary hallucinations. They may also occur when a person is intoxicated or during withdrawal from alcohol. High fevers, dementia, severe head injury, or serious illnesses like end stage kidney failure may cause a person to see or hear things as well. In addition, they can be associated with the long term use of some stimulants, like cocaine.
Most often, these perceptions are transitory. Those experiencing them know afterward that what they saw or heard was not real. In some cases, as with dementia or schizophrenia, people have difficulty distinguishing between what is real and what is not, since the hallucinations are frequent.
Some hallucinations involve seeing or hearing people or voices. This is most common with schizophrenia and dementia. Most others involve seeing or hearing distortions of what is actually there. In this case, a person might look at a light bulb and see butterflies coming out of it or hear a song and be convinced it was much slower or faster than actually was the case.
Often, sensory hallucinations can completely reduce a person’s ability to function, when fictional perceptions are indistinguishable from what is real. Those who experience them as a result of mental illnesses have a good chance of recovery through drug treatment and therapy. Unfortunately, those with dementia may not have as good a chance. When drug users are able to stop taking drugs or end addictions, hallucinations nearly always stop, though they may get worse at first as the person goes through withdrawal.
Medical professionals diagnose sensory hallucinations by asking patients specific questions. Not all people will truthfully answer, however, since some think that these visions give them insight into the world. This is frequently true when the hallucinations are relatively friendly and the person experiencing them feels that he or she has a sacred duty in the world. This is also the case when the patient suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and believes that the healthcare professional is somehow going to hurt him or her.
Questions asked usually involve such things as whether a patient hears a voice, feels himself or herself being touched, or sees a person. When the patient answers honestly, the medical professional may ask him or her whether he or she has suffered a recent traumatic event or a head injury has occurred, and what prescribed or recreational drugs he or she has taken.
Medical causes other than psychiatric illness will probably be investigated to rule out severe health problems. The medical professional may perform blood tests and a physical examination. How hallucinations are treated varies significantly depending on the cause.