Understanding Night Terrors
Night terrors are classified as parasomnia; an undesired occurrence during sleep. In children, night terrors occur during the first third of the sleep period. For adults, night terrors can happen at any time during the sleep cycle.
Night terrors differ from nightmares in the way that during a nightmare, the dreamer wakes up and remembers details. But when experiencing night terrors, people remain asleep. Children usually do not remember anything about their night terror. Adults may recall a dream fragment they had during their night terrors.
During an episode, a person may sit up in bed, scream, shout, kick, sweat, breathe heavily, have a racing pulse, be hard to awaken, get out of bed and run around the house, engage in violent behavior or stare wide-eyed. It is important to see a doctor when night terrors become more frequent, routinely disrupt sleep, cause fear of going to sleep or lead to dangerous behavior and injury.
The causes of night terrors can vary. The most common contributing factors are sleep deprivation, fatigue, stress, anxiety, fever and sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings. Sometimes, night terrors are associated with underlying conditions that affect sleep such as seizures, sleep-disordered breathing, migraines, stroke, hyperthyroidism, head injuries, brain swelling or premenstrual period. Alcohol, illicit drugs or certain medicines such as some antibiotics, sedatives and sleeping pills can also trigger night terrors.
Night terrors typically occur in families with a history of bipolar disorder and other depressive or anxiety disorders. They are typically self-diagnosed, however, in some cases, observation or tests in an overnight sleep lab may be recommended. Drugs are rarely used to treat night terrors, unless there are underlying disorders. Typically, families are advised to do a few things to treat themselves. These include closing and locking all windows and doors at night and blocking doors or stairways with a gate in order to make the sleeping environment safer, getting more sleep, establishing a regular and relaxing routine before bedtime, indentifying things that stress you out and brainstorming solutions and keeping a diary of frequent night terrors in order to find a possible pattern.
For more information on night terrors and other sleep disorders, visit NorthShore University HealthSystem’s Sleep Center.