7 Myths About Narcolepsy

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Lorna Collier on September 22, 2020
  • fatigue
    Wake up to the truth about this serious sleep disorder.
    Narcoleptic patients are often played for laughs in movies or on TV. You might see characters suddenly keel over and hit the ground in mid-sentence or maybe face-plant in their soup as sleep hits with startling abruptness. Real narcolepsy is not like that--nor is it funny.
  • Dizzy in the Gym
    Myth No. 1: Narcolepsy isn't a serious or dangerous condition.
    Forget comic images of narcoleptics experiencing funny pratfalls or harmless mid-meal snoozes. Real-life people with narcolepsy face a lifelong, chronic condition that can cause not only severe drowsiness but temporary paralysis, bouts of muscle weakness, hallucinations, insomnia, and other symptoms of disordered sleep, resulting in brain fog, inability to concentrate, memory lapses, and depressed mood. These symptoms aren’t just frustrating—they’re dangerous. Collapsing due to exhaustion or as a result of muscle weakness can be physically harmful, as can falling asleep or losing muscle strength while driving a car or carrying a baby. 
  • tired-man-with-hand-on-head
    Myth No. 2: Narcoleptics collapse into sleep with no warning.
    People with narcolepsy are very, very tired during the day—it's a hallmark of the disorder (which affects about 1 in every 2,000 Americans). But drowsiness may affect each person differently. And even the most severely sleepy will still have enough advance warning of an impending "sleep attack" to find a place to snooze before crashing. 
  • crowd-of-city-people-walking-on-sidewalk
    Myth No. 3: People with narcolepsy fall down--a lot.
    It's true that a large segment of those with narcolepsy (between 50 to 70%) also have episodes of muscle weakness called cataplexy. Some may indeed fall down from these abrupt, brief attacks, and they may be unable to move or speak--but they stay awake the whole time. And a large number of those with narcolepsy don’t experience these attacks at all.
  • Group of friends smiling
    Myth No. 4: Narcolepsy is extremely rare.
    Narcolepsy is not a common illness, but it occurs more often than you may think, and is considered to be underdiagnosed. It is 10 times more common than Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS), for example. About 160,000 Americans are projected to have it, though less than a third—about 50,000 people—have been diagnosed.
  • tired-woman-in-bed-looking-at-clock
    Myth No. 5: People with narcolepsy sleep all the time.
    Just because people are sleepy or take naps doesn't mean they sleep more than the average person. In fact, narcoleptics don't sleep any more—or less —than is typical, when you count up the hours they sleep. What's different is the quality of their sleep, which too often is interrupted, fragmented and not restful or healthy.
  • Friends sitting on sofa chewing bubble gum
    Myth No. 6: Only adults have narcolepsy.
    About half of adults with narcolepsy first notice symptoms before the age of 15. Narcolepsy can strike as young as 7 years old, with many narcoleptics experiencing symptoms from ages 10 through 20. Some symptoms may differ in children compared to adults: for kids, excessive sleepiness may manifest as longer nighttime sleeps, rather than daytime drowsiness. Children may also appear cranky or hyperactive rather than sleepy. 
  • Woman Sleeping
    Myth No. 7: If you nap a lot, you must be narcoleptic.
    Excessive daytime sleepiness is the hallmark of narcolepsy, but that doesn't mean this condition is the only reason people may feel extremely fatigued. Other sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome, can cause daytime drowsiness. A variety of medical problems, mental health conditions, and medications (both prescribed and illicit) can cause this symptom as well.

    It's important to check out any symptoms of narcolepsy with your physician. Don't believe the myths. Take this serious condition seriously—and get treatment if needed.

7 Myths About Narcolepsy

About The Author

Lorna Collier has been reporting on health topics—especially mental health and women’s health—as well as technology and education for more than 25 years. Her work has appeared in the AARP Bulletin, Chicago Tribune, U.S. News, CNN.com, the APA’s Monitor on Psychology, and many others. She’s a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Association of Health Care Journalists.
  1. Narcolepsy - Overview and Facts. Sleep Education (an information resource from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine). http://www.sleepeducation.org/essentials-in-sleep/narcolepsy
  2. Narcolepsy Fact Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/narcolepsy/detail_narcolepsy.htm
  3. Narcolepsy Myths, Misconceptions and Sloths. Narcolepsy Network. http://narcolepsynetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Narcolepsy-Myths-Misconceptions-and-Sloths.pdf
  4. Krahn LE, Hershner S, Loeding LD, Maski KP, Rifkin DI, Selim B, Watson NF. Quality measures for the care of patients with narcolepsy. J Clin Sleep Med 2015;11(3):335–355. http://aasmnet.org/Resources/QualityMeasures/QualityMeasuresfortheCareofPatientswithNarcolepsy.pdf
  5. Narcolepsy. Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/narcolepsy/what-is-narcolepsy/narcolepsy_symptoms

Was this helpful?
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 22
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.