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Why Microsleep is Dangerous, and What You Should Do

Microsleep is a condition where a person suddenly falls asleep for a few seconds at a time (typically between 2 and 30 seconds), and can be an incredibly dangerous condition if left unchecked. Each time that this happens is referred to as a microsleep episode, and in these episodes it is typically only part of the brain that actually falls asleep.

New research into this area has shown that sometimes certain parts of the brain, even a small group of nerve cells, can fall into a sleep like state, even when the rest of the brain shows signs of being fully awake. The problem with this condition is that it can be incredibly dangerous if a microsleep episode happens while a person is performing a task that requires total concentration. 

In fact, there have been many fatal traffic accidents that have resulted from these episodes, not to mention accidents while working or doing other important tasks. If you have ever been driving and basically shut down for a few seconds before realizing again that you were driving, then you have experienced microsleep. 

In fact, pretty much everyone has experienced one of these episodes, but we usually just pass it off and think we “zoned out” for a few seconds, when in actuality we were technically sleeping, even if just for a few seconds. During one of these episodes, a person’s eyes will often stay open, which makes it hard for others to see what is going on. 

microsleepThe individual is also usually not aware that they were asleep and will not be able to react during the episode, which is what makes it so dangerous while driving or doing other tasks as the person may not notice that a traffic light has turned red or they may cross the center line on a highway.

While these episodes can be related to a medical condition or a sleeping disorder, sometimes it's not so serious, and they can also just be a result of sleep deprivation or a sleep debt (when a person continually fails to get an adequate amount of sleep). 

Due to the dangerous nature of these episodes, you should try to be alert for the signs that a microsleep episode might be about to happen. This will help you to have time to stop doing any dangerous task such as driving before you experience an episode and put yourself and others at risk.

Symptoms of Microsleep

While a person usually remains completely unaware of the fact that they slept after a microsleep episode, there are signs that one could be about to happen. These signs are usually quite easy to spot for both the person about to have the episode and others around them. 

If these symptoms occur while performing a dangerous task, you should stop what you are doing immediately and rest. For instance, if it happens while driving, you should pull over to the side of the road and try to sleep. 

Even a short nap may be enough to prevent an episode from occurring, and arriving at your destination late is better than being in an accident. Some of the most common and recognizable symptoms include:

  • Nodding of the head
  • Drooping or closed eyelids
  • Constant blinking
  • A blank look in the eyes or staring at nothing
  • Lack of or difficulties concentrating

Causes of Microsleep

microsleepNo matter what the underlying cause of the problem is, the ultimate reason that these episodes occur is sleep deprivation or sleep debt. This also means that the more sleep deprived a person is, the more likely it is for an episode to occur and the more often that they will occur. 

It also seems to be that these episodes are most likely to occur either in the early morning hours (usually before dawn) or in the afternoon after having lunch.

The most common cause of microsleep episodes definitely has to be simple sleep deprivation caused by poor sleep hygiene or a simple lack of adequate sleep. This is actually quite worrying because sleep deprivation is something that all too many adults constantly suffer from. 

Our busy modern lives have resulted in sleep being sacrificed for work or lost due to hours spent staring at the television or computer screen. Despite the huge amount of information showing the importance of sleep on our overall level of health, we continue to ignore it, making a large percentage of the population likely to suffer from one of these episodes. 

Luckily though, this cause is also one of the easiest to treat. Having proper sleep hygiene and good sleeping habits will help ensure that you get the amount of sleep you need to avoid suffering from one of these episodes. It will also have a positive impact on your overall health, not to mention keeping you safe from accidents caused during an episode. 


Still, many people who suffer from these episodes do so because their sleep deprivation is related to another medical condition or sleeping disorder. Probably the most common sleeping disorder that results in episodes of microsleep has to be narcolepsy


In fact, one of the major warning signs that a person is suffering from narcolepsy is frequent microsleep episodes. 

microsleepStill, frequent episodes could also be a sign of another sleeping disorder, such as sleep apnea or hypersomnia, as they typically cause a person to be constantly sleep deprived. 

These episodes also often occur when a person suffers from excessive daytime sleepiness, which is a type of insomnia. 

Another condition that could be responsible for these episodes is hypoxia, which is when there is a lack of oxygen getting to the brain through the bloodstream. 

While hypoxia is one of the major issues with sleep apnea, their blood oxygen levels are typically only lowered during an apnea while sleeping. 

So if these episodes are due to hypoxia, it is most likely not a sleeping disorder, but a different medical condition that is responsible. 

If you feel that you get adequate sleep, but still suffer from these episodes, it may be necessary to see your doctor to determine if you have a sleeping disorder or other medical condition that is responsible.

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