Harvard Women's Health Watch

What do irregular heartbeats mean?

Heart palpitations may be benign, or they may signal a serious problem. How can you tell the difference?

Songwriters will tell you that your heart can skip a beat or go pitter-patter if you're falling in love, and they may be right. But what if palpitations—the sensation that your heart is beating too hard, racing too fast, or missing beats—start for no reason whatsoever?

"It depends on how long the palpitations last, how often they occur, and what other symptoms you have with them," says Dr. Usha Tedrow, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Occasional palpitations that last only a second or two typically are not anything to worry about, Dr. Tedrow says. "But if symptoms last longer and you are lightheaded, pass out, or have chest pain or significant shortness of breath, you should go to the emergency room," she advises. Less severe symptoms can often be evaluated with home rhythm monitors. If you have been diagnosed with a heart condition and have new palpitations, you should see your cardiologist as soon as you can, Dr. Tedrow says.

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