Heart palpitations and ectopic beats

Heart palpitations are heartbeats that suddenly become more noticeable.

Your heart may feel like it's pounding, fluttering or beating irregularly, often for just a few seconds or minutes. You may also feel these sensations in your throat or neck.

Palpitations may seem alarming, but in most cases they're harmless and are not a sign of a serious problem.

Sometimes you may feel an extra or missed beat. These are known as ectopic beats and are also usually nothing to worry about.


Causes of heart palpitations

Causes of heart palpitations include:

  • lifestyle triggers
  • emotions and psychological triggers
  • medicines
  • hormone changes
  • heart rhythm problems
  • heart conditions
  • other medical conditions

Lifestyle triggers

Common triggers of heart palpitations include:

In these cases, the palpitations should go away on their own. Avoiding these triggers may help stop them from coming back.

Emotional or psychological triggers

Heart palpitations are also often caused by emotions or psychological issues, such as:

  • excitement or nervousness 
  • stress or anxiety
  • panic attacks – an overwhelming sense of anxiety or fear, accompanied by feeling sick, sweating, trembling and palpitations

Doing breathing exercises and learning how to deal with a panic attack may help if you're feeling stressed, anxious or panicked.

Medicines

Palpitations can occasionally be triggered by some medicines, including:

Speak to a GP if you think a medicine may be causing your heart palpitations. But do not stop taking a prescribed treatment without first getting medical advice.

Hormone changes

Heart palpitations in women can sometimes be the result of hormonal changes that happen during:

In these cases, the palpitations are usually temporary and not a cause for concern.

Heart rhythm problems

Palpitations are sometimes caused by a problem with the heart rhythm (arrhythmia), such as:

  • atrial fibrillation – this is the most common type, where the heart beats irregularly and faster than normal
  • atrial flutter – a fast and irregular heartbeat
  • supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) – abnormally fast heart rate
  • ventricular tachycardia – a more serious condition where the regular heartbeat is typically fast. It can be associated with dizziness or blackouts

Heart conditions

Some palpitations may be associated with other types of heart conditions, such as:

Some of these conditions can be serious and often require treatment.

Other medical conditions

Other conditions that can cause heart palpitations include:

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When to see a GP

You do not usually need to see a GP if the palpitations pass quickly and only happen occasionally. They're unlikely to be caused by a serious problem and probably will not need treatment.

But it's a good idea to see a GP if:

  • the palpitations last a long time, do not improve or get worse
  • you have a history of heart problems
  • you're concerned about the palpitations

To help find the cause, a GP may:

  • ask about your symptoms and medical history
  • arrange a blood test
  • carry out an electrocardiogram (ECG) to check your heart rate (if the GP has the equipment available)

If you cannot have an ECG at the GP surgery or the GP wants to arrange heart monitoring over a longer time period, you may be referred for tests at a local hospital.

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When to get emergency help

Call 999 for an ambulance or go to your nearest A&E if you have heart palpitations and any of the following symptoms:

  • severe shortness of breath
  • chest pain or tightness
  • dizziness or light-headedness
  • fainting or blackouts

These symptoms could indicate a serious or potentially life-threatening heart problem that should be checked by a doctor straight away.

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