Introduction

Heart palpitations are heartbeats that can become noticeable.

You may or may not develop other symptoms at the same time. For example, your heart might 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 might feel alarming but keep in mind that in most cases they aren't a sign of any problems with your heart. However, you should always get palpitation symptoms checked out with your GP or health professional.

You may sometimes feel that your heart skips a beat or there is an extra beat. This is known medically as an ectopic beat. It's very common and usually nothing to worry about.

When to get immediate medical help

Sometimes palpitations may be a sign of a heart problem. It's important to seek immediate medical assistance or call 999 if you are experience other symptoms such as:

  • dizziness
  • breathlessness or shortness of breath
  • chest pain

Causes

There are a number of possible causes for heart palpitations. Some of the most common are covered below.

Lifestyle triggers 

Lifestyle triggers can include:

Feeling nervous, anxious or excited

If this is the cause of your palpitations, it's sensible to try to reduce your stress levels. 

Try relaxation and deep breathing exercises.

Find out more about stress management

Smoking

If you smoke, giving up is probably the greatest single step you can take to improve your health. 

People in Scotland can get help to stop smoking by calling Smokeline free on 0800 84 84 84 (7 days, 8.00am to 10.00pm) or visiting the our smoking section.

Drinking large amounts of caffeine

If this is the cause of your palpitations, it's sensible to try reducing your intake of caffeinated drinks such as tea, coffee, cola or energy drinks. 

Using illegal or recreational drugs

Whether you've taken drugs, are thinking of taking them, or are just curious and want to know more, it's important to know the real facts about drugs.

Find out more on the Know The Score website

Drinking too much alcohol

If you need help now about an alcohol related issue or you just want to chat to someone about your drinking, please contact Drinkline on 0800 7 314 314 (7 days, 8.00am to 11.00pm).

More about drinking alcohol responsibly

Being overweight

For advice on living a healthy, active lifestyle visit Active Scotland and Eat Better Feel Better.

Panic attacks

If you experience palpitations regularly and you also have feelings of anxiety, stress and panic, you may be experiencing panic attacks. 

Panic attacks can be very frightening and intense, but they are not dangerous. However, it may help if you discuss these with a health professional.

More about panic attacks

Medication

Less commonly, palpitations can be a side effect of some types of medicine, such as asthma inhalers or tablets for a thyroid problem. 

This may be particularly noticeable if you have just started taking the medication. 

Speak to your GP if you think medication may be responsible for your palpitations. Don't stop taking a treatment without consulting your GP first.

Periods, pregnancy and the menopause

Sometimes the hormone changes that happen during a woman’s period, during pregnancy or around the menopause can cause palpitations. 

These may only be temporary, and are often nothing to worry about.

Medical conditions

The following conditions can make the heart beat faster, stronger or more irregularly, so can be a cause of heart palpitations:

  • an overactive thyroid 
  • low blood sugar level  
  • anaemia (low red blood count)  
  • some types of low blood pressure 
  • infections
  • diabetes
  • dehydration (not enough fluid in the body)
  • a heart problem

Heart specific problems

All palpitations should be discussed with your GP. They might want to do a few tests and ask you some questions to rule out heart problems, especially if you have had a heart problem in the past.  

Some heart specific problems are covered below.

Arrhythmia

It could be found that you have a heart rhythm problem, also known as arrhythmia. 

Your GP will be able to arrange for you to have an electrocardiogram (ECG) to assess your heart rate and rhythm. This may confirm whether there is a problem, and whether treatment is needed. 

However, often the ECG is entirely normal especially if you aren't having palpitations at the time. Further tests may then be needed, which can be done by your GP or by your local hospital. 

Atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart rhythm problem, affecting approximately 1,000,000 people in the UK. 

It can cause episodes of a fast, irregular heart rate, which can feel like a persistent heart flutter, and you may feel dizzy, short of breath and extremely tired. 

Atrial fibrillation is generally not life threatening, but can be uncomfortable and often needs treating.  

Atrial fibrillation often requires medical assessment. Some people may need treatment to control the condition, particularly if they are at higher risk of developing a stroke.

Find out more about atrial fibrillation

Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT)

A similar heart rhythm problem, called supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), also causes episodes of an abnormally fast heart rate, but the heart rate is normally steady and not irregular. 

Attacks of SVT are usually harmless and tend to settle on their own without treatment. However, if they are prolonged or you feel unwell or experience symptoms such as dizziness or shortness of breath, you should seek help from a doctor.