Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Short-Term or Acute Insomnia

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Insomnia is one of the most common sleep complaints and is characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep. There are multiple types of insomnia based on the duration and potential causes. Of the types lasting less than three months, a more common one is short-term or acute insomnia. What is acute insomnia? Learn about the definition of short-term insomnia, the causes, the classic symptoms, and how it is diagnosed and treated.

Woman sitting up in bed with insomnia
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Acute insomnia lasts for less than three months and is often related in time to an identifiable cause. Insomnia is present when there is difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep or when the sleep that is obtained is non-refreshing or of poor quality. It may be associated with early morning awakenings. These problems occur despite adequate opportunity and circumstances for sleep and they must result in problems with daytime function. Other sleep problems of this duration include circadian rhythm sleep disorders such as jet lag and potentially shift work, as well as high altitude insomnia.


  • Adjustment insomnia
  • Short-term insomnia
  • Stress-related insomnia
  • Transient insomnia


There are many common symptoms of acute insomnia, including:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Difficulty staying asleep
  • Early morning awakenings
  • Fatigue or daytime sleepiness
  • Poor attention or concentration
  • Mood changes (including worry or reduced motivation or energy)
  • Social or vocational dysfunction (including increased errors or accidents)
  • Tension, headache, or stomach symptoms


There are many potential causes of acute insomnia, ranging from physical to psychological to social to environmental. In most cases, the condition resolves when the affected person adapts or no longer is subject to the cause. These potential causes include:

  • Changes in noise, lighting, temperature, or other conditions of the sleep environment
  • Medications (especially those with stimulant properties)
  • Use of caffeine or nicotine or withdrawal from alcohol or sedating medications
  • Pain
  • Stress (varying from routine stressors to job loss, grief reactions, and divorce)
  • Nocturia (nighttime urination)


Insomnia does not require any special testing in order for a diagnosis to be established. In fact, a diagnosis can be made by a healthcare provider who performs a careful history and physical examination. It is important that coexisting medical condition, psychiatric and neurologic disorders, sleep disorders, and medication or drug causes be considered. Sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome are the most common triggers of secondary insomnia. In some cases, additional testing may be indicated, though this is not often the case.


If insomnia lasts more than three months, it may be labeled as chronic insomnia. When this occurs, it may be necessary to pursue treatment with sleeping pills or cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI).

A Word From Verywell

It is incredibly frustrating to experience insomnia. Fortunately, simple changes may be hugely beneficial. If you are struggling to fall asleep one night, get up after 20 minutes. Find a quiet place to relax. Read, listen to music, or watch a familiar movie or television show. Once you start to feel drowsy, return to bed. Repeat this as often as is necessary. This can be a helpful way to reset a bad night of sleep. If you have persisting difficulties, consider speaking with a board-certified sleep specialist. Our Doctor Discussion Guide below can help you start that conversation with your healthcare provider.

Insomnia Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next healthcare provider's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Woman
3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ellis JG, Perlis ML, Neale LF, Espie CA, Bastien CH. The natural history of insomnia: focus on prevalence and incidence of acute insomnia. J Psychiatr Res. 2012;46(10):1278-85. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2012.07.001

  2. Riemann D, Baglioni C, Bassetti C, et al. European guideline for the diagnosis and treatment of insomnia. J Sleep Res. 2017;26(6):675-700. doi:10.1111/jsr.12594

  3. Hughes JM, Ulmer CS, Gierisch JM, Nicole Hastings S, Howard MO. Insomnia in United States military veterans: An integrated theoretical modelClin Psychol Rev. 2018;59:118–125.

Additional Reading
  • Insomnia. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute Diseases and Conditions Index.
  • International classification of sleep disorders: Diagnostic and coding manual. 2nd ed, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Westchester, Illinois 2005.

By Brandon Peters, MD
Brandon Peters, MD, is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist.