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What is Sleep Terror Disorder?

Nicole Madison
By
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Sleep terror disorder, also called night terrors, is a condition marked by waking suddenly and in a frightened state. For example, a person with sleep terror disorder may wake up screaming and feeling both confused and frightened. In the throes of night terrors, a person may be difficult to awaken fully or comfort, and he may be completely unaware of his environment. Other symptoms of the disorder may include dilated pupils, thrashing and flailing, sweating, rapid heartbeat, and hyperventilation. After about 10 to 20 minutes, the affected person usually falls back into a normal sleep pattern.

No one is sure of the exact causes of sleep terror disorder, but it often seems to run in families. Medical professionals think that fever and fatigue may contribute to it, as well as emotional stress. Many people think of night terrors as a childhood problem, and in fact, they are most common in children, especially boys who are five to seven years of age. However, they also occur in girls and adults. When they occur in adults, emotional stress or consumption of alcohol may be contributing factors.

Symptoms of sleep terror disorder are most frequently noted between 12 a.m. and 2 a.m. When an affected person has an episode, he usually forgets about it and cannot explain it in the morning; some children with the condition sleepwalk as well. Interestingly, nightmares and night terrors differ from each other dramatically. Nightmares often occur in the early morning hours and may be influenced by scary movies and emotionally stressful events. Often, a person will remember nightmares after waking up, and the confusion typical of sleep terror disorder is absent.

Usually, there’s no need for examinations and testing in diagnosing sleep terror disorder. Often, the account of a parent or loved one who has witnessed episodes gives doctors enough information. In cases that are very severe, a doctor may recommend that the patient undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many treatments for night terrors. Often comfort and understanding are the best possible treatments, and counseling may help in some cases. Rarely, medications like diazepam, commonly known as Valium®, are prescribed to reduce episodes. With time, children usually outgrow sleep terror disorder. In fact, episodes are much less frequent by the time most children are 10 years old.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a The Health Board writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.
Discussion Comments
By David09 — On May 30, 2011

@nony - I had sleep apnea symptoms for several years before I realized what it was. I awakened at night with difficulty breathing. Sometimes it felt like I couldn’t breathe at all; I had to start rubbing my chest real hard to get the circulation flowing again and start breathing. At first I thought I had a heart condition. Finally I checked myself into the Emergency Room.

They ran every kind of heart test imaginable, but the results were all normal. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I had sleep apnea. I found some relief by not always sleeping on my back, and sometimes doing calisthenics or treadmill exercise before sleeping to get the oxygen flowing. I can’t afford the oxygen mask either. This is my do-it-yourself approach.

By nony — On May 28, 2011

I have obstructive sleep apnea. Has anyone else here had this condition? I can’t afford that oxygen mask equipment that they sell to monitor your sleep, but a guy at work has one and it’s been helping him.

By miriam98 — On May 26, 2011

Night terrors in children are especially troublesome. My niece suffered from panic attacks in the night for several years from the age of eleven. This was trauma related; it started happening shortly after the divorce of her parents. She would awaken in the middle of the night, and grab her throat and start gasping for air and shout for her mother to help her.

This went on for a couple of years, on and off, and the condition terrified her mother. She took her to a doctor and they gave her some sleep medication. This reduced the frequency of the attacks but did not eliminate them altogether. Finally after a couple of years they stopped happening. I think she had matured to the point where she no longer had that anxiety about her parent’s break-up, which was the underlying cause.

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a The Health Board writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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