How long can you stay awake?

By Clinton Marquardt - Sleep & Fatigue Specialist

September 4, 2013

fatigue, shift-work, sleep deprivation

The longest well-documented period without sleep that I have ever heard of is 264 hours and 12 minutes…about 11 days[1].  The 17 year old Randy Gardner broke the previous record of 260 hours for his high school science fair project.  This was in 1965 and I haven’t read or heard of anything like it since.

When I started working at the Royal Ottawa Sleep Disorders Centre, I was completing my undergraduate degree in psychology.  True to being a student, I could go to school all day, take a nap before work and then stay up all night at the sleep lab…with the help of a good dose of coffee.  But I would crash hard afterwards.  There was the odd summer day when I had to head to another job as a painter right after my sleep lab shift.  I might have made it to 32 hours with only a nap, but my performance was poor. I remember how hard it was to stay steady on the ladder as I finished the paint job….bordering on dangerous I would now argue.

Car CrashSo just when should you cut off the wakefulness and think about getting some sleep?  Back in 1997 a research team from Australia compared cognitive psychomotor performance after long periods of wakefulness to performance after drinking alcohol[2].  What they found was that if you stay awake for 17 hours, your hand-eye coordination would be about the same as if you drank enough alcohol to bring your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level to 0.05%.  At this BAC, it is illegal to drive a car in many areas, but people drive after being awake for 17 hours all the time!

Before you get to 17 hours, start thinking about safety and getting some shut-eye.


[1] Dement, W. (1972). Some must watch while some must sleep. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company.

[2] Dawson, D., & Reid, K. (1997).  Fatigue, alcohol and performance impairment.  Nature, 388, 235.

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