Symptoms of narcolepsy 

Not everyone with narcolepsy will experience the same symptoms. Some experience them regularly, while others are less frequently affected.

Symptoms may develop slowly over a number of years, or suddenly over the course of a few weeks.

Narcolepsy is generally a long-term (chronic) condition, although some of the symptoms may improve as you get older.

You should make an appointment to see your GP if you think you may have narcolepsy, so they can determine what is causing your symptoms. If necessary, you will be referred to a specialist in sleep disorders, who can confirm the diagnosis. Read more about diagnosing narcolepsy.

Excessive daytime sleepiness

In most cases, excessive daytime sleepiness is the first sign of narcolepsy. This can have a significant impact on everyday life.

Feeling drowsy throughout the day and struggling to stay awake makes it difficult to concentrate at work or school. People with narcolepsy may be misjudged as being lazy or rude.

Sleep attacks

Sleep attacks  falling asleep suddenly and without warning  are also common in people with narcolepsy. They often occur after eating, although can happen at any time.

The length of time a sleep attack lasts will vary from person to person. Some people will only have "microsleeps" lasting a few seconds, whereas others may fall asleep for several minutes.

If narcolepsy is not well controlled, sleep attacks may happen several times a day.

Cataplexy

Most people who have narcolepsy also experience cataplexy  sudden, temporary muscle weakness or loss of muscular control. Typical symptoms are:

  • the jaw dropping
  • the head slumping down
  • legs collapsing uncontrollably
  • slurred speech 
  • finding it difficult to focus, or double vision

Cataplexy attacks are usually triggered by an emotion, such as excitement, laughter, anger or surprise. Attacks can last from a few seconds to several minutes.

Some people with narcolepsy have cataplexy attacks once or twice a year, while others experience them several times a day. In an attempt to avoid attacks, some people may become emotionally withdrawn and socially isolated.

Sleep paralysis

Some people with narcolepsy will experience episodes of sleep paralysis. This is a temporary inability to move or speak that occurs when you are waking up or falling asleep.

The episodes can last from a few seconds to several minutes. Although sleep paralysis does not cause any harm, being unable to move can be frightening.

Other symptoms

As well as the symptoms described above, narcolepsy can cause a number of other symptoms, including:

  • hallucinations  seeing or hearing things that are not real, particularly when going to sleep or waking up
  • memory problems
  • headaches
  • restless sleep  for example, having hot flushes, waking up frequently, having vivid nightmares or physically acting out dreams
  • automatic behaviour  carrying on with an activity, but having no recollection of it afterwards 
  • depression

If you have narcolepsy and it is making you feel depressed or low, speak to your GP.

They can give advice on how to minimise the effect narcolepsy has on your daily life. They can also put you in touch with a narcolepsy organisation or support group, such as Narcolepsy UK.

Page last reviewed: 28/05/2014

Next review due: 28/05/2016