What are heart palpitations?

Heart palpitations are heartbeat sensations that you suddenly become aware of because they feel like your heart is “pounding” or “racing.” They may feel like you have exercised or they may feel like a flutter, a skipped or extra beat, or a heartbeat that simply does not feel normal. Palpitations can occur at any time - while you are simply sitting or moving about normally as you perform your daily activities.

Palpitations can be felt in your chest, throat or neck. Although heart palpitations may be startling, they may or may not be related to an abnormal heart rate and are often not serious or harmful.

What causes heart palpitations?

Heart palpitations may be caused by:

  • Emotions, such as anxiety, stress, fear, panic
  • Exercise
  • Pregnancy
  • Caffeine found in coffee, teas, chocolate, colas, some sports drinks and foods
  • Certain medical conditions: overactive thyroid, low blood sugar, low potassium level, low oxygen level or low carbon dioxide level in the blood, fever, anemia, dehydration, loss of blood, shock
  • Certain medications: asthma inhalers and decongestants, beta blockers (taken for high blood pressure or heart disease), thyroid and antiarrhythmic medications, and some over-the-counter medications that act as stimulants, such as cough and cold medicines, and some herbal or nutritional supplements
  • Illegal street drugs: cocaine and amphetamines (speed)
  • Nicotine found in tobacco products

Symptoms of palpitations are more likely to be related to an abnormal heart rhythm if you have:

  • Significant risk factors for heart disease
  • Existing heart disease
  • Heart rhythm problems – also called irregular heartbeats or arrhythmias (a change in rhythm of your heartbeat)
  • Abnormal heart valve

Are palpitations a symptom of a more serious health problem?

Palpitations may be a sign of a more serious health problem if you also feel:

  • Dizzy
  • Confused
  • Light-headed
  • Have trouble breathing
  • Pass out while experiencing the palpitations

If you experience these symptoms, call your doctor’s office right away. Also call your doctor’s office if the palpitations are accompanied by pain, pressure, or tightness in your chest, neck, jaw, arms, or upper back; shortness of breath; unusual sweating; or if you experience new or worsening symptoms.

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