Navigate Up

Men's Center - A-Z Index

#
Q
Y
Z

Print This Page

Night terror

Night terrors (sleep terrors) are a sleep disorder in which a person quickly wakes from sleep in a terrified state.

Alternative Names

Pavor nocturnus; Sleep terror disorder

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

The cause is unknown, but night terrors may be triggered by:

  • Fever
  • Lack of sleep
  • Periods of emotional tension , stress , or conflict

Night terrors are most common in boys ages 5 - 7, although they also can occur in girls. They are fairly common in children ages 3 - 7, and much less common after that. Night terrors may run in families. They can occur in adults, especially when there is emotional tension or the use of alcohol.

Click to download

Symptoms

Night terrors are most common during the first third of the night, often between midnight and 2 a.m.

  • Children often scream and are very frightened and confused. They thrash around violently and are often not aware of their surroundings.
  • You may be unable to talk to, comfort, or fully wake up a child who is having a night terror.
  • The child may be sweating, breathing very fast (hyperventilating ), have a fast heart rate , and widened (dilated) pupils.
  • The spell may last 10 - 20 minutes, then the child goes back to sleep.

Most children are unable to explain what happened the next morning. They often have no memory of the event when they wake up the next day.

Children with night terrors may also sleep walk .

In contrast, nightmares are more common in the early morning. They may occur after someone watches frightening movies or TV shows, or has an emotional experience. A person may remember the details of a dream when he or she wakes up, and will not be disoriented after the episode.

Signs and tests

In many cases, no further examination or testing is needed. If the night terror is severe or prolonged, the child may need a psychological evaluation.

Treatment

In many cases, a child who has a night terror only needs to be comforted.

Reducing stress or using coping mechanisms may reduce night terrors. Talk therapy or counseling may be needed in some cases.

Benzodiazepine medicines (such as diazepam) used at bedtime will often reduce night terrors, but are rarely used to treat this disorder.

Expectations (prognosis)

Most children outgrow night terrors in a short period of time. The number of episodes usually decreases after age 10. Rarely, children will have problems falling asleep or staying asleep.

Calling your health care provider

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if:

  • The night terrors occur often
  • They disrupt sleep on a regular basis
  • Other symptoms occur with the night terror
  • The night terror causes, or almost causes, injuries

Prevention

Minimizing stress or using coping mechanisms may reduce night terrors. The number of episodes usually decreases after age 10.

References

Owens JA. Sleep medicine: In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007: chap 18.

Updated: 5/1/2011

Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.


©  UPMC | Affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences
Supplemental content provided by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions. All rights reserved.

For help in finding a doctor or health service that suits your needs, call the UPMC Referral Service at 412-647-UPMC (8762) or 1-800-533-UPMC (8762). Select option 1.

UPMC is an equal opportunity employer. UPMC policy prohibits discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, sex, genetics, sexual orientation, marital status, familial status, disability, veteran status, or any other legally protected group status. Further, UPMC will continue to support and promote equal employment opportunity, human dignity, and racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. This policy applies to admissions, employment, and access to and treatment in UPMC programs and activities. This commitment is made by UPMC in accordance with federal, state, and/or local laws and regulations.

Medical information made available on UPMC.com is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely entirely on this information for your health care needs. Ask your own doctor or health care provider any specific medical questions that you have. Further, UPMC.com is not a tool to be used in the case of an emergency. If an emergency arises, you should seek appropriate emergency medical services.

For UPMC Mercy Patients: As a Catholic hospital, UPMC Mercy abides by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, as determined by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. As such, UPMC Mercy neither endorses nor provides medical practices and/or procedures that contradict the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

© UPMC
Pittsburgh, PA, USA UPMC.com