What You Should Know About Heart Palpitations

Normally the heart beats between 60 and 100 beats per minute. If you exercise on a regular basis or take medications that slow the heart, your rate may be below 55 beats per minute. A heart palpitation is having a sensation that your heart is pounding, fluttering or racing. You may also feel like your heart has skipped a beat or stopped beats. Although heart palpitations may feel a bit frightening, they aren't usually serious and can be brought on by a number of things, including stress, exercise and medication. In rare cases, heart palpitations can be a symptom of a serious underlying health problem, such as an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism) or an abnormal heart rhythm heart (arrhythmia), and may require treatment. Heart arrhythmias may include very fast heart rates (tachycardia), very slow heart rates (bradycardia) or an irregular heart rhythm (atrial fibrillation).

In addition to your chest, heart palpitations may be felt in the throat or neck and can occur whether you're active or at rest.

Some causes of heart palpitations include:

  • Anemia
  • Anxiety, stress, fear
  • Caffeine
  • Certain medications, including those used to treat thyroid disease, asthma, high blood pressure or heart conditions; and cold and cough medications that contain pseudoephedrine, which is a stimulant
  • Diet pills
  • Fever
  • Heart valve disease, including mitral valve prolapse
  • Nicotine
  • Strenuous exercise
  • Hormone changes related to menstruation, pregnancy or menopause

When to Seek Help

If your palpitations are brief and there are no other troubling signs of a more serious problem, tell your doctor about them at your next appointment. See your doctor right away if you have risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes; you have new or different heart palpitations; or your pulse is greater than 100 beats per minute without exercise, anxiety or fever.

If you're having heart palpitations accompanied by severe shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness or lightheadedness, unusual sweating or fainting, you should seek emergency medical attention immediately.

How to Lower Your Risk for Heart Palpitations

The best way to reduce your chances of experiencing heart palpitations is to eliminate symptom-causing triggers, including:

  • Avoiding illegal drugs, such as cocaine
  • Reducing stress or anxiety through relaxation techniques, such as the practice of yoga or exercise
  • Stimulants, such as caffeine, nicotine, some cold medicines and energy drinks containing herbal supplements. Stimulants can make your heart beat faster or irregularly