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Last updated: Jun 22, 2021
4 min read

What are night terrors? Symptoms, causes, and treatment

Middle-of-the-night episodes that leave you screaming in a terrified state and little recollection the next morning could mean you are experiencing night terrors. Night terrors are more common in children, but that doesn’t mean they don’t affect adults. It’s quite common for a person to grow out of night terrors—most children are free of night terrors by adolescence.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

It’s a classic scene in a horror movie. Someone is sleeping, suddenly sits up, and screams out of fear. They’re confused, with little memory of what just happened. In real life, night terrors are pretty similar. 

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What are night terrors?

Night terrors (also called sleep terrors) are characterized by intense screaming and crying while asleep. It’s difficult to wake up someone who is having a one, and once they’re awake, they may have no memory of what just happened (Boyden, 2018).

Night terrors are relatively short. Episodes usually last a few minutes but can be longer, lasting up to an hour. Night terrors most commonly occur in the first third or half of the night and may be accompanied by sleepwalking (Leung 2020; Horn, 2020).

Symptoms of night terrors

Those experiencing night terrors may experience one or more of the below (Leung 2020):

  • Sudden, loud screaming or crying
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating and breathing heavily
  • Sitting up asleep with eyes wide open or pupils dilated
  • Flushed skin or sweating
  • Acting inconsolable
  • Kicking or thrashing while sleeping
  • Sleepwalking
  • Frantically running into furniture or walls in an attempt to avoid harm
  • Having no memory of the night terror the next day

Causes of night terrors

It’s estimated that sleep terrors occur in 1–6.5% of children between one and 12 years old. Night terrors typically peak when kids are five to seven years old (Leung 2020).

Adults can also have night terrors, but rarely so. It’s more prevalent in those who experienced them as a child or has a family history of them (Fleetham, 2014).

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why some people experience night terrors, and others do not. There may be a connection between night terrors and psychiatric disorders––like depression or anxiety––but not in the case of young children. Research has found that people with depression or anxiety may be more prone to these terrifying episodes (Fleetham 2014).

Studies have discovered that high stress levels are also linked to night terrors––particularly in children (Schredl, 2001).

What are the differences between night terrors and nightmares?

There are two major differences when it comes to decoding a night terror from a nightmare.

First is the intensity of the episode. Night terrors cause a physical reaction, like screaming or sitting up abruptly, and are typically more intense. Sleep terrors also come with more anxiety than nightmares (Leung 2020; Boyden, 2018).

The second difference is that it’s really hard to wake up someone in the middle of an episode. On the other hand, nightmares can actually wake up the person who is having a bad dream.

People who experience night terrors may not remember them at all, while someone who has nightmares usually remembers bits and pieces or the entire thing in vivid detail (Nadorff, 2015; Leung 2020).

How are night terrors diagnosed?

There is no standardized clinical test to diagnose night terrors.

Your healthcare provider will ask you about a family history of night terrors, any preexisting conditions, and get a detailed account of what’s happening when you experience night terrors.

In order to get this information, your partner or family members might help. This information also helps rule out other sleep disorders or health problems like seizures (Horn, 2021).

How do you treat night terrors?

It’s quite common for kids to grow out of night terror––most children are free of them by adolescence. 

Occasional night terrors are usually not cause for concern and could be a response to stress, anxiety, or poor sleep hygiene. However, if episodes become more frequent, disrupt others’ sleep, lead to safety concerns (like sleepwalking), or excessive daytime sleepiness, talk to a healthcare professional. Having that conversation is crucial in reducing the frequency and severity of night terrors, and hopefully eliminating them completely.

Some lifestyle hacks could also decrease the frequency of night terrors. Practice good sleep habits, such as setting a regular sleep schedule. Avoid alcohol before bed, and try going to sleep and waking up the same time every night––even on weekends (AASM, 2021).

References

  1. Boyden, S. D., Pott, M., & Starks, P. T. (2018). An evolutionary perspective on night terrors. Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, 2018(1), 100–105. doi.org/10.1093/emph/eoy010. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/emph/article/2018/1/100/4971513
  2. FISHER, C., KAHN, E., EDWARDS, A., & DAVIS, D. (1973). A PSYCHOPHYSIOLOGICAL STUDY OF NIGHTMARES AND NIGHT TERRORS. The Journal Of Nervous And Mental Disease, 157(2), 75-98. doi: 10.1097/00005053-197308000-00001. Retrieved from https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1097/00005053-197308000-00001
  3. Fleetham, J., & Fleming, J. (2014). Parasomnias. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 186(8), E273-E280. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.120808. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4016090/
  4. Schredl, M. (2001). Night Terrors in Children: Prevalence and Influencing Factors. Sleep and Hypnosis: A Journal of Clinical Neuroscience and Psychopathology, 3(2):68-72. http://www.sleepandhypnosis.org/ing/Pdf/187198e4382240209d24e17373f216e0.pdf
  5. Nadorff, M. R., Nadorff, D. K., & Germain, A. (2015). Nightmares: Under-Reported, Undetected, and Therefore Untreated. Journal of clinical sleep medicine : JCSM : official publication of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Doi: org/10.5664/jcsm.4850. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25845898/
  6. Nightmares & Other Disturbing Parasomnias – American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). (2021). Retrieved from https://aasm.org/resources/factsheets/nightmareparasom.pdf
  7. Horn, N., & Street, M. (2021). Night Terrors. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493222/
  8. Gedam, S., Patil, P., & Shivji, I. (2018). Childhood night terrors and sleepwalking: diagnosis and treatment. Open Journal Of Psychiatry & Allied Sciences, 9(1), 73. doi: 10.5958/2394-2061.2018.00014.9. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Sachin-Gedam/publication/320126316_Childhood_night_terrors_and_sleepwalking_diagnosis_and_treatment/links/59cf42d0a6fdcc181ac5674e/Childhood-night-terrors-and-sleepwalking-diagnosis-and-treatment.pdf
  9. Leung, A., Leung, A., Wong, A., & Hon, K. (2020). Sleep Terrors: An Updated Review. Current Pediatric Reviews, 16(3), 176-182. Doi: 10.2174/1573396315666191014152136. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31612833/