Sleep terrors, also known as night terrors, are episodes of screaming, intense fear, and flailing while still asleep. They are considered a parasomnia, an undesired occurrence during sleep, and are often associated with sleepwalking. While these episodes typically last from seconds to a few minutes, they may occasionally extend longer.
Sleep terrors primarily affect children, with nearly 40 percent experiencing them, while they occur in a much smaller percentage of adults. Although frightening, sleep terrors are usually not a cause for concern, as most children outgrow them during their teenage years.
However, when sleep terrors lead to sleep disturbances or pose safety risks, they may require treatment.
Sleep terrors differ from nightmares in that the person experiencing a sleep terror episode remains asleep and often has no recollection of the event upon waking. Children, in particular, rarely remember anything about their sleep terrors in the morning, while adults may have fragmented dream memories.
Sleep terrors typically occur in the first third to first half of the night and rarely during daytime naps. In some cases, sleep terrors may be accompanied by sleepwalking.
During a sleep terror episode, a person may exhibit the following symptoms:
Occasional sleep terrors are generally not a cause for concern. However, it’s essential to consult a doctor if sleep terrors:
Sleep terrors are classified as a parasomnia and occur during N3 sleep, the deepest stage of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. They can be triggered by various factors, including sleep deprivation, stress, sleep schedule disruptions, and fever. Underlying conditions such as sleep-disordered breathing, restless legs syndrome, certain medications, mood disorders, and alcohol use may also contribute to sleep terrors.
Individuals with a family history of sleep terrors or sleepwalking have a higher risk of experiencing sleep terrors. Additionally, sleep terrors are more common in female children.
Experiencing sleep terrors may lead to some complications, including:
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To diagnose sleep terrors, a doctor will conduct an evaluation that may include:
Treatment for infrequent sleep terrors is generally unnecessary. However, if they lead to potential injury, disrupt family members, or cause sleep disruption and embarrassment for the affected person, treatment may be required.
Promoting safety and addressing underlying causes or triggers are the primary focuses of treatment. Treatment options may include:
If sleep terrors are problematic, the following strategies can be helpful:
If concerned about sleep terrors for you or your child, consult a doctor, who may refer you to a sleep specialist. Keeping a sleep diary for two weeks before the appointment can provide valuable information about sleep patterns and potential triggers.
Before the appointment, make a list of symptoms, personal information, medications, and questions to ask the doctor to make the most of your time together. Some possible questions include:
During the appointment, the doctor may inquire about the onset and frequency of sleep terrors, past sleep problems, family history of sleep issues, and other relevant information.