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General Information

DEFINITION--Rare sleep disorder characterized by uncontrollable episodes of falling asleep at any place or time. After a 10 or 15 minute sleep attack, the person feels rested only briefly, then returns to an uncomfortable feeling of sleepiness. Attacks may occur while driving, talking or working.

BODY PARTS INVOLVED--Central nervous system.


  • Both sexes.
  • Begins in adolescence or young adulthood and continues throughout life.


    Any of the following (10% of people with narcolepsy have all signs):

  • Sleep attacks that may occur up to 10 times a day. These can occur during conversations or other activities. An attack leaves the person feeling refreshed, but another may occur again quickly.
  • Vivid dreams, sounds or hallucinations at the beginning of a sleep attack or upon awakening.
  • Temporary paralysis (sudden loss of muscle strength) when falling asleep or just before complete awakening.
  • Momentary paralysis not related to sleep when feeling sudden emotion, such as anger, fear or joy.
  • Irresistible drowsiness during the day.

CAUSES--Unknown. Possible involvement of the immune system. Occasionally, it follows brain infection or head injury.


Family history. > Either of the following may trigger an attack: Monotonous activity, prolonged laughter.

HOW TO PREVENT--No known preventive measures.

What To Expect


  • Your own observation of symptoms.
  • Medical history and physical exam by a doctor.
  • EEG (See Glossary).
  • Studies in a sleep laboratory (sometimes).


  • Self-care after diagnosis.
  • Doctor's treatment.

POSSIBLE COMPLICATIONS--Accidental injury during a sudden sleep attack.

PROBABLE OUTCOME--This disorder lasts throughout life, but it has no effect on life expectancy. Symptoms can worsen with aging. However, in women, symptoms can improve after menopause. Medication can decrease the frequency of sleep attacks.

How To Treat


  • Treatment usually involves regular naps along with medication to help control the drowsiness.
  • Wear a Medic-Alert bracelet or pendant (See Glossary).
  • See Resources for Additional Information.

MEDICATION--Your doctor may prescribe:

  • Stimulants that increase levels of daytime alertness.
  • Antidepressants for other symptoms (momentary paralysis).


  • Don't engage in any activity that carries the risk of injury from a sudden sleep attack. These include activities such as driving long distances, climbing ladders or working around dangerous machinery.
  • Exercise can sometimes decrease the number of sleep attacks. Seek to achieve optimal physical fitness.

DIET--No special diet.

Call Your Doctor If

  • You have symptoms of narcolepsy.
  • New, unexplained symptoms develop. Drugs used in treatment may produce side effects.
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