Sleep terrors (night terrors)
Sleep terrors (night terrors)
Sleep terrors are episodes of fear, flailing and screaming while asleep. Also known as night terrors, sleep terrors often are paired with sleepwalking.
Although sleep terrors are more common in children, they can affect adults. A sleep terror episode usually lasts from seconds to a few minutes.
Sleep terrors are relatively rare, affecting only a small percentage of children — often between ages 4 and 12 — and a smaller percentage of adults. However frightening, sleep terrors aren't usually a cause for concern. Most children outgrow sleep terrors by adolescence.
Sleep terrors differ from nightmares. The dreamer of a nightmare wakes up from the dream and remembers details, but a person who has a sleep terror episode remains asleep. Children usually don't remember anything about their sleep terrors in the morning. Adults may recall a dream fragment they had during the sleep terrors.
Like sleepwalking and nightmares, sleep terrors are a parasomnia — an undesired occurrence during sleep. Sleep terrors usually occur during the first third of the sleep period.
During a sleep terror episode, a person might:
When to see a doctor
Consult your doctor if your or your child's sleep terrors:
Various factors can contribute to sleep terrors, including:
Sleep terrors sometimes are associated with underlying conditions that affect sleep, such as:
In other cases, use of alcohol, illegal drugs or certain medications — including some antihistamines, sedatives and sleeping pills — can trigger sleep terror episodes.
Sleep terrors tend to run in families. Some adults who have sleep terrors may have a history of depressive or anxiety disorders, although most don't have a mental health condition.
Sleep terrors aren't necessarily a concern, but regularly disrupted sleep can be. It can cause excessive daytime sleepiness, which can lead to difficulties at school or work, or problems with everyday tasks such as driving.
Harming oneself or others is another possible, rare complication during sleep terrors.
Preparing for your appointment
For children, sleep terrors tend to decrease by the time they're adolescents. However, if you have concerns about safety or underlying conditions for you or your child, you may want to consult your or your child's doctor, who may refer you to a sleep specialist.
It's a good idea to prepare for your appointment. Here's some information to help you.
What you can do
Preparing a list of questions for your doctor will help you make the most of your time together. For sleep terrors, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions that occur to you.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Sleep terrors are usually self-diagnosed. Your doctor may do a physical or psychological exam to identify any conditions that may be contributing to the sleep terrors. In some cases, a sleep study in an overnight sleep lab may be recommended.
Your doctor will review the information to determine whether you or your child have any sleep disorders.
Treatments and drugs
Treatment for sleep terrors isn't usually necessary. If your child has a sleep terror, simply wait it out. You might gently restrain your child and try to get him or her back into bed. Speak softly and calmly. Shaking your child or shouting may make things worse.
If the sleep terrors are associated with an underlying medical or mental health condition or another sleep disorder, treatment is aimed at the underlying problem. If stress or anxiety seems to be contributing to the sleep terrors, your doctor may suggest meeting with a therapist or counselor. Cognitive behavior therapy, hypnosis, biofeedback and relaxation therapy may help.
Medication is rarely used to treat sleep terrors, particularly for children. If necessary, however, use of benzodiazepines or some antidepressants may help reduce sleep terrors.
Lifestyle and home remedies
If sleep terrors are a problem for you or your child, here are some things to try:
Above all, be positive. However disruptive, sleep terrors aren't a serious condition - and they usually go away on their own.
Last Updated: 2011-08-12
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