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SUNY Downstate Medical Center

Sleep Disorders Center

Night Terrors

What Are Night Terrors?

A person experiencing night terrors awakens from sleep in a terrified state. Night terrors occur during deep sleep, usually during the first third of the night.

Night terrors are fairly common in children ages 3 to 7, especially boys. The sleep disorder, which may run in families, also can occur in adults. The cause is unknown but night terrors may be triggered by fever, lack of sleep, or periods of stress or conflict. Strong emotional tension and/or the use of alcohol can increase the incidence of night terrors among adults.

  • The person may appear to be awake, but is confused and unable to communicate. He may be sweating, breathing very fast (hyperventilating), have a fast heart rate and dilated pupils. Children often scream and are very frightened. They thrash around violently and are often not aware of their surroundings.
  • You may be unable to talk to, comfort, or fully awaken a person who is having a night terror.
  • The spell may last 10 - 20 minutes, and then normal sleep resumes. People who have night terrors usually don't remember the events the next morning. There is often no memory of the event when they awaken the next day.
  • People experiencing sleep terrors may pose a danger to themselves or others because of limb movements. Children with night terrors may also sleepwalk.