Heart Palpitations

  • What is a heart palpitation?

    A heart palpitation occurs when your heart feels like it's beating irregularly. It might feel like the heart is skipping beats, or is beating faster than usual when you're at rest (not exercising). Sometimes exercise can cause the palpitations to occur: the heart continues to race despite stopping exercise.

    Heart palpitations often don't indicate a health problem.

    Rarely, heart palpitations can be a sign of a serious medical condition, such as anemia, thyroid problems or an arrhythmia. (An arrhythmia is an irregular heartbeat caused by a problem with the heart's built-in electrical system.)

  • Causes

    Heart palpitations can be caused by a variety of factors, including:

    • Being startled, frightened or under stress
    • Cold, allergy, and asthma medications
    • Herbal supplements
    • Cocaine and other drugs
    • Pregnancy or menopause
    • Nicotine
    • Caffeine
    • Alcohol

    Two of the most frequent causes for heart palpitations are not drinking enough fluid on a regular basis or being out of good physical shape.

  • Signs and symptoms

    Younger children may not be able to describe exactly what they are feeling when this happens, although sometimes they will say that their heart is "beeping" fast.

    If your child experiences any of the following along with heart palpitations, you should make an appointment with your primary care pediatrician right away.

    • Fainting
    • Lightheaded feeling
    • Difficulty breathing (gets out of breath)
    • Chest pain
  • Testing and diagnosis

    If your child experiences heart palpitations without any other symptoms, you should keep a log of when palpitations occur and under what conditions, then talk to your primary care pediatrician at a regular checkup. If the palpitations occur often and you are concerned, call your doctor or make an appointment to discuss the issue.

    If you are able to check your child’s heart rate by taking the pulse or touching the chest directly when the palpitations occur, that information will be helpful to your doctor. Ask your pediatrician for information on how to check your child's heart rate.

    Your pediatrician may also refer you to a pediatric cardiologist, a doctor who specializes in heart problems in children. He or she will perform a full evaluation of your child's health, including getting a medical history and performing an examination. He may order heart tests such as an electrocardiogram, echocardiogram, stress test (on a bicycle or treadmill) or, rarely, cardiac catheterization.

    Your child may also have to wear a Holter monitor, which records the heart rhythm over 24 hours. Another type of monitor that your doctor may have your child wear is a loop recorder, which is worn for one month but records only when the child pushes a button on the recorder at the time of an event of palpitations.

    Based on the results of these tests, your pediatric cardiologist will determine whether your child has an arrhythmia, which is an irregular heartbeat caused by a problem with the heart's built-in electrical system.

    Make sure to tell your doctor if your family has a history of known heart abnormalities or unexplained death before the age of 50 (including sudden infant death syndrome).

  • Treatments

    To determine whether treatment is needed, your primary care doctor will consider factors such as the frequency and intensity of the heart palpitations and your child's medical history. In the majority of cases, no treatment is necessary for heart palpitations. Your doctor may make general recommendations, such as cutting back on caffeinated soda or increasing routine hydration.

    In rare cases where we do find an underlying heart condition, one treatment option includes medications. Another option is ablation, a catheterization technique using heat or cold to sear off abnormal electrical passageways in the heart. Rarely, children with heart palpitations will need implantable pacemakers or defibrillators.

    However, only a very small number of children with heart palpitations require these types of treatment, and the large majority of these children do very well with their treatment.

Reviewed by William Bonney, MD on September 02, 2013