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What Are Night Terrors?

Night terrors happen during deep sleep, not the lighter, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. They usually occur during the first half of the night, a few hours after people fall asleep. They last 5 to 20 minutes. People seem to wake up and start screaming, panicking, and sweating. However, they aren’t awake, even though their eyes may be open. After people do wake up, they may remember only frightening images, or nothing. Night terrors are most common in children, especially boys 4 to 12 years old, but adults sometimes have them. Most children outgrow night terrors. Night terrors cause no lasting damage.

Night terrors aren’t nightmares. Nightmares occur in early morning, during REM sleep, and include unpleasant or frightening dreams.

What Causes Night Terrors?

The cause is unknown. They’re often related to emotional tension, stress, fatigue, or conflict. They can occur when people are taking a new medicine or sleeping away from home.

What Are the Symptoms of Night Terrors?

Symptoms include screaming, sweating, confusion, seeing frightening things, rapid heart rate, inability to wake up properly, moving arms or legs, and sometimes sleepwalking. Some people may not be aware of their surroundings or other people, so they may be hard to comfort. After an episode, they often cannot explain what happened or remember it.

How Are Night Terrors Diagnosed?

Children usually need no tests for diagnosis. Tests to rule out other illnesses are done only when severe night terrors last for more than a month with many episodes each night. People with extreme night terrors may need examination by a health care provider or observation in a sleep laboratory.

How Are Night Terrors Treated?

Waking children about 30 minutes before night terrors usually start might prevent night terrors. Get children out of bed and keep them awake for about 5 minutes by talking to them. Then let them go back to sleep. After a week of this treatment, night terrors usually stop. Sleep medicines are rarely used for this problem, and only in extreme cases.

Night terrors in adults are sometimes a symptom of psychological trauma. The health care provider may prescribe medicines and may suggest psychotherapy, which helps deal with emotional problems.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing Night Terrors:

  • DO gently restrain people having night terrors to help them avoid hurting themselves.
  • DO make sure babysitters and other family members know what to expect.
  • DO call your health care provider if night terrors last for a month or more, with many episodes each night.
  • DO call your health care provider if other symptoms occur with the night terror or if night terrors cause an injury.
  • DO relax and comfort children at bedtime.
  • DO remember that in adults, night terrors are usually a sign of a psychological problem.
  • DO limit stress.
  • DON’T shake or shout at someone having night terrors. If you manage to wake up people who are having night terrors, they’ll only be more confused.
  • DON’T let a child who has night terrors sleep in a top bunk bed.

Contact the following sources:

  • American Academy of Family Physicians
    Tel: (800) 274-2237
  • National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
    Tel: (800) 370-2943

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

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