Nightmares and Night Terrors

What are nightmares and night terrors?

Nightmares are scary dreams filled with monsters or frightening events. Most people have had nightmares at times, usually in the early morning hours. If nightmares happen once in a while, it is usually not anything to worry about. People with a nightmare disorder have a severe problem with nightmares.

Night terrors are different from nightmares. During a night terror, you may be very active and upset, and sit up with your eyes open, even though you are still asleep. Night terrors usually happen in the first hour after you fall asleep. In the morning, you cannot remember what happened. Night terrors are harmless and each episode will end on its own with deep sleep.

What is the cause?

The exact cause of nightmares is not known.

Nightmares happen often in childhood, especially between the ages of 3 and 6. Most children outgrow them. In some people, they continue into adulthood. In adults, nightmares may be the result of taking certain medicines such as antidepressants or sleeping pills. They may also be a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or panic disorder.

Females are more likely than males to have nightmares. Some people have different nightmares, while others may have the same nightmare over and over again.

Night terrors are not as common as nightmares. Night terrors usually start between the ages of 3 and 12. Most children outgrow them, but adults may start having night terrors in their twenties. The cause of night terrors is not known, but they are often related to stress, tension, and conflict. You are more likely to have night terrors if you sleepwalk, or if someone else in your family has had night terrors.

What are the symptoms?

You may have a nightmare disorder if:

  • You wake up over and over with nightmares.
  • The dreams seem to last a long time and are very frightening.
  • The nightmares are about threats to your life, your security, or your self-image.
  • You remember the nightmares in detail.
  • The troubled sleep interferes with work, school, or social activities.

Symptoms of night terrors include:

  • You may wake up screaming or crying a few hours after going to sleep.
  • Your heart rate and breathing are very fast.
  • People tell you later that they could not seem to comfort you.
  • You do not remember the night terrors at all, unless other people tell you about it.

How are they diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. He will make sure you do not have a medical illness or drug or alcohol problem that could cause the symptoms. You may have tests or scans to help make a diagnosis.

Your healthcare provider may suggest that you sleep overnight in a sleep center. At the sleep center you may have a continuous, all-night recording of your breathing, eye movements, muscle tone, blood oxygen levels, heart rate and rhythm, and brain waves.

How are they treated?

In some cases, your healthcare provider may prescribe medicine to help you sleep. Do not take any sleep medicine for more than 2 weeks in a row without your healthcare provider’s approval. This includes nonprescription sleeping pills. You may become dependent on them or build up your tolerance to them so that they no longer work as well.

Your healthcare provider may recommend relaxation techniques, changes in diet, cutting out caffeine, and a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise. Your provider may discuss good sleep habits and a regular sleep routine.

Counseling may help you deal with anxiety or other problems, or help you manage stress.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. Ask your healthcare provider:

  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent nightmares and night terrors?

Talk to your healthcare provider about your personal and family medical history and your lifestyle habits. This will help you know what you can do to help prevent problems.

  • Before you go to bed, write down all the things you are worrying about. Then write down what you can do tomorrow. Mark the other things as things to do later in the week. This may help clear your mind of worry.
  • Read something light or entertaining just before you go to bed, to get your mind off the day’s troubles.
  • Don’t watch violent shows or horror movies because they may cause nightmares.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-06-11
Last reviewed: 2014-06-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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