Night terrors are a sleep disorder in which a person abruptly awakens from sleep in a frightened or panicked state. The condition most often happens during the first third of the night and is sometimes accompanied by sleepwalking.
Night terrors are rare in adults and older children and most often occur in kids between the ages of 4 and 12. The condition is common in children between 3 and 7, but far less so after that. Boys between the ages of 5 and 7 are the most likely sufferers. In rare cases, adults may suffer from the disorder as well. Most children outgrow night terrors by adolescence. The condition tends to run in families.
Night terrors are a form of parasomnia, which also includes sleepwalking and nightmares. A child with night terrors usually remains asleep and will rarely remember the episode in the morning. Symptoms typically last for between 10 and 20 minutes. During an episode your child may abruptly sit up in bed, scream or shout out, stare wide-eyed (with dilated pupils), or kick and flail. Other symptoms may include rapid breathing (hyperventilation) and pulse, confusion, and sweating. It is usually very difficult to wake the child as well.
Symptoms of night terrors may manifest similarly in adults as they do in children. However, they usually last for a much shorter period of time, usually between a few seconds and a few minutes. Some adults with night terrors may have a history of anxiety or depression. In addition to the above symptoms, adults may also have violent outbursts. Adults are more likely than children to remember the incident in the morning.
Although the exact cause of night terrors isn’t known, the condition may be triggered by a variety of factors including anxiety, stress, or conflict in the household. Fatigue and sleep deprivation may be a factor as well. Children who sleep in an unfamiliar place (such as a hotel or at a friend’s house) may be especially susceptible to night terrors.
Other factors that may cause night terrors include an underlying condition such as sleep apnea, a head injury, or migraines. Certain medications including antihistamines, sedatives, or sleeping pills may trigger an episode as well. Adults with an alcohol or other drug dependency are at a greater risk for night terrors than others.
Night terrors rarely require treatment. You should comfort your child if he or she has night terrors. Adults with night terrors may benefit from stress reduction, coping strategies, or psychotherapy. Complications of night terrors are rare and medication is rarely used.
Parents should seek treatment for their child if the night terrors are caused by an underlying condition, sleep disruption, or if they are the result of an injury.
For most sufferers, night terrors decrease after age 10 and disappear during adolescence.