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A reported 80% of narcolepsy sufferers don’t tell a doctor about their symptoms. However, it’s important that you don’t ignore the signs of narcolepsy and get the help you need, before your quality of life is affected.

The onset of narcolepsy symptoms can be gradual or sudden. If they’re gradual, they might be harder to detect, or you might not connect them to a particular sleep disorder. However, if you notice any of the symptoms outlined below, it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible.

Common symptoms of narcolepsy

Sleepiness

Falling asleep suddenly is the most well-known symptom of narcolepsy. These ‘sleep attacks’ occur at different rates for different people. Some may only notice mild bouts of narcolepsy, while others will experience several attacks on any given day.

When sleep attacks happen, they can be quite embarrassing, particularly if you fall asleep while someone is speaking to you. You might worry about people thinking you’re rude. Narcoleptics might also be concerned about getting into trouble for falling asleep at work or school, and this can lead to stress, or even depression.

Even if your sleep attacks occur rarely, simply feeling sleepy all day can be a sign of narcolepsy. If you find yourself struggling to stay awake, it’s important to see a doctor about it. Some people with narcolepsy report running on ‘autopilot’ for minutes at a time without realising, which could potentially be dangerous.

Temporary muscle weakness or loss of muscle control

Also known as cataplexy, many people with narcolepsy find they sometimes lose control of their muscles. Common symptoms of cataplexy include:

  • Head drooping forward
  • Jaw hanging open
  • Collapsing legs, which can cause a potentially dangerous fall
  • Slurred speech
  • Blurred or unfocused vision

Cataplexy is typically triggered by an outburst of emotion, such as laughter, surprise or anger. Many people regain control of their muscles within a few seconds, but for others a bout of cataplexy can last several minutes.

Like sleep attacks, the frequency of cataplexy episodes is different for each person with narcolepsy. It’s possible to experience narcolepsy without cataplexy.

Sleep paralysis

Sleep paralysis is the temporary inability to move or talk when you wake up, or just before you fall asleep. You are fully aware of what’s going on around you, but you’re unable to react to what’s going on.

Like many symptoms of narcolepsy, it can last a few seconds, or several minutes. Sleep paralysis is naturally alarming for some people, but it doesn’t cause any long-term damage.

Hallucinations

Some narcoleptics talk of seeing or hearing things, particularly just after waking up or just before falling asleep. They may also act out their dreams as they’re having them.

When should you see a doctor?

If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s very important to see a doctor and find out whether they could be a sign of narcolepsy.

Perhaps one of the reasons so many cases go unreported is that when you experience these symptoms, your first thought might not be narcolepsy. You might be tempted to put it down to a bad night’s sleep, but narcolepsy isn’t actually linked to how well you sleep at night, so don’t make any connection between the two.

As well as general concerns about your symptoms, feeling sleepy all the time can have an impact on your mental health. You must let a doctor know if you feel stressed, anxious or depressed.

What happens next?

Find out more about the actual causes of narcolepsy here, and remember that our online doctors are available every day to discuss any concerns you have about sleep disorders. You can book an appointment in minutes and see a doctor on any device from the comfort of your own home.

If the doctor concludes that your symptoms might be a sign of narcolepsy, they can refer you to a sleep specialist or neurologist who will be able to help you further. Learn more about how our GPs can diagnose narcolepsy here.

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