Heart Palpitations



What are heart palpitations?

A heart palpitation is an awareness of your heartbeat. It can feel like many different sensations. 

Heart palpitations are common, however, some types of palpitations are dangerous. They can be a warning sign that something is wrong. It can be difficult to tell for sure without being examined by a doctor. If you are having palpitations, you should speak to your doctor right away. 

Heart palpitations can feel scary and can cause a lot of worry. Many people fear that palpitations are a sign that they are having a heart attack or that their heart will stop. Most of the time, palpitations are nothing to worry about and won’t hurt you. However, you should be aware of the signs of more serious causes of palpitations.3

Doctor listening to the heart of a male patient using a stethoscope.


What do heart palpitations feel like?​

A palpitation is a sensation in your chest that usually comes from a change in your normal heartbeat. It can feel like many different things, such as:

  • A “flip-flop” sensation 
  • A flutter sensation 
  • Feeling like your heart has skipped a beat
  • Feeling like your heart is beating faster
  • The feeling that your heart is noticeably slowing down 
  • The feeling that your heart is beating harder than usual3

Sometimes, you can feel palpitations in other parts of the body, such as the throat or jaw.

Heart palpitations usually only last for a few seconds, and go away by themselves.

Woman feeling heart palpitation with her hand to her chest


Who usually gets heart palpitations?​

Anyone can get heart palpitations, whether they are young or old. Palpitations often appear as a result of stress, too much caffeine or other factors, such as pregnancy.

However, you should speak to your doctor as soon as possible if: 

  • You are experiencing palpitations for the first time, 
  • Your palpitations are different from ones you have experienced before, or 
  • You have other worrying symptoms with the palpitations.

Your doctor will examine you and request tests to make sure the palpitations are not harmful to you.


What causes heart palpitations?​

A variety of different things can cause heart palpitations. Some of these may need further review by your doctor.

Electrolytes are minerals in our blood that help our cells to work. They include things like:


  • calcium 
  • magnesium 
  • sodium 
  • potassium 
  • phosphate

If any of these mineral levels are too high or too low, it can affect the nerves and muscle in your heart, causing palpitations.


Some things that can change your electrolyte levels include:


  • Diarrhoea
  • Not having enough electrolytes in your diet
  • Extreme diets, such as the keto diet2
  • Kidney problems
  • Taking too many supplements
  • Eating disorders

Cortisol is the “fight or flight” stress hormone. Changes in cortisol levels in the blood can stimulate certain nerves and cause palpitations to happen more often. Some common causes of this include:

If your mental health is causing palpitations, stress and anxiety management techniques can help. You can read about one specific technique, called mindfulness, here.

Some recreational drugs can increase the heart rate, which can make palpitations more likely to happen. These include: 

  • Caffeine4
  • Alcohol
  • Smoking5
  • Other stimulant drugs, like cocaine

If you are getting palpitations and regularly take any of these substances, you should consider cutting down or quitting.

Some medications may increase your risk of getting palpitations. These can include:

  • Some asthma medications, like salbutamol
  • Decongestants (which help clear a stuffy nose), like pseudoephedrine
  • Some allergy medications (antihistamines)

If you feel your palpitations may be caused by a medication you are taking, speak to your doctor. They will examine you and decide if you should make changes to your regular medication.

In some people, Covid-19 can cause inflammation in the blood vessels and muscle of the heart.


Palpitations may be a sign of this inflammation. If you are having new palpitations and think you may have caught Covid-19 at any time, you should speak with your doctor as soon as possible. They can examine you and run tests to make sure you are safe.6

There is a large nerve that runs between your neck and your chest, called the vagus nerve. It helps control your breathing and your heartbeat. If something rubs against it or puts pressure on it, the vagus nerve can trigger heart palpitations. 


Things that may irritate the vagus nerve include:

  • Trapped wind or bloating
  • Acid reflux (heartburn) in the food pipe (oesophagus)
  • Eating a large meal
  • Lying on your left side or bending over

In some people, avoiding large meals and eating food with less fat can reduce palpitations.

Changes in hormones can affect the body in a number of different ways. Some hormone changes can increase the risk of palpitations, such as:


  • Low blood sugar, for example, from diabetes medication
  • Too much thyroid hormone, like from an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) or from taking too much thyroid hormone medication.
  • Women’s hormone changes, such as menopause and the monthly period.7

If you feel your palpitations are related to any of these issues, speak with your doctor. They can recommend a treatment plan for you to improve your symptoms.

Changes in blood circulation (blood flow) can force the heart to work harder. This can cause palpitations. 


Some things that can change blood circulation include:

  • Strenuous or difficult exercise
  • Pregnancy  
  • Dehydration (not enough fluids in the body)
  • Anaemia (when your blood loses some of its ability to carry oxygen to your cells)
  • Infections (e.g. urinary tract infections (UTIs))

If you feel your palpitations may be caused by any of these conditions, speak with your doctor as soon as you can. Some of these issues, such as anaemia or infection, may need urgent medical attention.

If you have palpitations while exercising, you should avoid difficult exercise until your doctor tells you it’s safe. They may send you for heart tests to rule out a serious cause of your palpitations.

Rarely, palpitations may be due to problems with the heart itself. These can include:

  • Problems with the heart rhythm (arrhythmias). For example, with atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter, the top chambers of the heart beat abnormally. Arrhythmias may come and go.
  • Problems with the heart muscle itself, such as myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle), heart failure, or a heart attack.
  • Problems with the valves in the heart.

In very rare cases, palpitations can be a sign of an arrhythmia from a heart attack. If you have any worrying symptoms, you should seek urgent medical attention.


How do I know if my heart palpitations are serious?​​

There is no way of knowing for sure if your palpitations are serious without speaking to your doctor. They will want to examine you and may request other tests to rule out a serious cause. 

Some types of arrhythmia can be serious and may need urgent treatment. You should speak with your doctor as soon as possible if your heart palpitations: 

  • Come back frequently
  • Last more than a few seconds
  • Happen when you are exercising
  • Create a pounding sensation in the neck8
  • Show other worrying symptoms at the same time

Many people worry if they feel heart palpitations at night when they are falling asleep, or waking up. Most of the time, these are not serious. It is quiet at night time and people usually lie still. As a result, some people are more likely to notice harmless extra heartbeats at night.


Lying on your side or curled up can also increase the pressure inside your chest, which can cause palpitations.


However, some rare causes of palpitations at night may be serious. If you are getting palpitations at night, you should speak to your doctor so that they can rule out a serious cause.8

If you are worried your heart palpitations may be serious, you should speak to your doctor as soon as possible. They will examine you and perform tests if needed. This will help either put your mind at ease or ensure that you find a suitable treatment plan.


Rarely, palpitations may be a sign of a serious medical condition. You should seek urgent medical attention if you are also experiencing any of these symptoms:

  • Sweating or clamminess
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Pain in the jaw, arm or upper back
  • Numbness in the jaw, arm or hand
  • Loss of consciousness, fainting or blacking out

The number to contact the emergency services in Iraq is 115.

Woman with insomnia sitting on her bed thinking.


How is the cause of heart palpitations found?​

To find the cause of your palpitations, your doctor will ask you some questions. 

These may include:

  • When do you notice the palpitations?
  • How do they make you feel before and afterwards?
  • How long do the palpitations last?
  • How are your stress levels at this time?
  • What were you doing just before you noticed the palpitations?
  • If you had the palpitations at night, did you do anything different from usual before bed? For example, did you eat a large meal or drink alcohol?

They might examine you and request further tests to exclude a serious cause. They will often:

  • Listen to your heart
  • Take blood tests, including:
    • Full blood count, which looks at all the cells that circulate in the blood and can help identify certain diseases or health problems
    • Urea and electrolytes (kidney function tests)
  • Perform a trace of your heart called an electrocardiogram (ECG)

If your palpitations happen while the ECG is taken, they will show up and the doctor will be able to interpret them. However, it can be difficult to catch palpitations when they only happen from time to time. If you are only having the palpitations occasionally, your doctor may request a different type of ECG, such as:

  • An event monitor. This is a machine that you wear, that will record the electrical activity of your heart whenever you feel symptoms, like your palpitations.

  • A 24 to 48-hour tape (Holter monitor). This is also a machine that you wear. It will record the electrical activity of your heart for up to 48 hours straight, whether you have symptoms or not.



The information in this article is written for general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, treatment or care. It is incredibly important that you do not make decisions regarding any symptoms based on this information alone. If you are worried about any symptoms you may be having, or have any further questions about this condition, please speak to a qualified and trustworthy medical professional.

How are heart palpitations treated?​

The only way to treat heart palpitations is by treating the underlying cause. In most cases, your doctor will find that your palpitations are not dangerous, although they may cause you distress.

If your palpitations are not harmful, your doctor will often recommend you avoid certain triggers, such as:

  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Heavy meals
  • Stress

In some cases, your doctor may feel that you need to take medication. The type of medication will depend on the cause of your palpitations. 


Some websites may recommend home remedies to treat palpitations, such as magnesium supplements. However, you should never do this without speaking with your doctor first. In some cases this can actually make your problem worse, and can even cause you harm.

If your palpitations are caused by certain types of arrhythmia (irregular heartbeats), your doctor may recommend a treatment called cardiac ablation. This is a procedure that scars the area of your heart that is causing the rest of your heart to beat abnormally.

Is there a cure for heart palpitations?

There is no single cure for palpitations, as so many different things can cause them. Many people only experience palpitations from time to time, so they cannot be completely avoided. The best way to treat palpitations is by speaking with your doctor to find the cause and working together on how to manage them.

Doctor giving a patient some medications and pills to take in hospital.

Can you prevent heart palpitations?​​

It is impossible to prevent all heart palpitations. However, most heart palpitations can be prevented by treating the cause and avoiding certain triggers. 

All people who are experiencing heart palpitations should consider avoiding common triggers. You can do this by:

  • Avoiding alcohol
  • Reducing your tea and coffee intake
  • Avoiding smoking
  • Managing your stress 
  • Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet

In Iraq, dehydration is especially important to be aware of. Dehydration can cause dangerously low blood pressure, and can affect your electrolytes. Both of these things can cause palpitations. It is important to remember to stay well-hydrated to protect your health.

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