What are heart palpitations?

Get a better understanding of heart palpitations.

While many cases of heart palpitations may be relatively harmless—triggered by stress, alcohol, or too much caffeine—in some cases they may be a warning sign of a more serious issue. Here’s what you need to know about heart palpitations.

A heart palpitation is an intermittent, irregular heartbeat that’s characterized by a sudden pounding, racing, or fluttering feeling. Sometimes heart palpitations may be classified as premature ventricular contractions (PVCs). PVCs are extra heartbeats that originate in the bottom of your heart and usually beat sooner than the next expected regular heartbeat.

Why palpitations happen

The cause of palpitations can't always be known. There could even be multiple factors at play. Some of the most common causes are:

  • Mental health. Stress, anxiety, panic attacks, and depression may cause heart palpitations because of the additional strain it puts on your body.
  • Strenuous exercise. Your heart is working harder during a workout, which may trigger heart palpitations during, or even after, you exercise.
  • Caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant, which can cause increased heart rate and palpitations.
  • Alcohol. It’s common for alcohol to trigger heart palpitations, especially if intake is excessive.
  • Illness. Running a fever makes your heart work harder and faster. Also, be aware that some OTC cold medications contain stimulants, which can cause your heart rate to increase.

How to detect palpitations

You may be able to feel when you’re having a palpitation, but they can be detected on an electrocardiogram (EKG), a test that shows the electrical activity of your heart. You can have your EKG recorded at a doctor’s office or with a personal EKG like KardiaMobile, which allows you to detect PVCs and other arrhythmias from home.

Should you be worried?

Heart palpitations are not usually serious, but in some cases they may be a sign of an underlying health issue, especially if you also experience feeling dizzy or lightheaded, have trouble breathing, or if you pass out when you have palpitations. As always, your doctor is your best resource. Inform your doctor of any heart palpitations or similar symptoms you experience, even if you don’t think it’s linked to something serious.