The One Thing You Should Never, Ever Do if You Have Heart Palpitations

Woman experiencing heart palpitations

We often discuss fluttering hearts in a figurative sense, such as when describing how we feel around a new special someone or when we know that our now-spouse is "the one." However, if your heart is literally fluttering and it feels abnormal, it can be distressing. After all, a healthy heartbeat is a sign of life. 

If this sounds familiar to you, you may be experiencing heart palpitations. Say what?

"Palpitations are one of the most common symptoms primary care providers and cardiologists see in their patients," says Dr. Hagai Yavin, MD, cardiologist and electrophysiologist at Rush University System for Health in Chicago. "Palpitations are a subjective symptom that might be described as a feeling of having a fast-beating, fluttering, or pounding heart."

Knowing heart palpitations are commonly reported may or may not bring you comfort. If not, perhaps this will.

"Palpitations are typically benign, but the risks are based on the underlying cause of the palpitations," says Dr. Bradley Serwer, MD, a cardiologist and the chief medical officer at VitalSolution.

In other words, heart palpitations aren't a cause for immediate panic. However, it's critical to get to the bottom of why you're experiencing them, which is why cardiologists agree that if you have them, you should never, ever do this one thing.

Related: The One Diet That Will Actually Lower Your Heart Attack Risk, According to Cardiologists

What Not To Do if You Have Heart Palpitations

Whatever you do, don't brush off heart palpitations. "Ignoring heart palpitations can be risky as they could be a sign of a more serious underlying issue with your heart," Dr. Yavin says.

Dr. Serwer agrees, explaining, "They may be benign, but they may also be an indication that something is wrong, which could be catastrophic if left untreated."

For instance, heart palpitations can be a red flag for an underlying heart condition. However, even potentially harmless reasons for heart palpitations can have serious consequences.

"Heart palpitations may lead to fainting or dizziness which, even if it is caused by a benign underlying condition, can still lead to life-threatening trauma such as head trauma and internal bleeding," Dr. Yavin says. "They can cause anxiety and distress which may rise to a level that impairs one’s life and daily routine."

What Causes Heart Palpitations?

Heart palpitations have several potential causes, so it's critical to seek medical attention for them. "The most common causes of palpitations include cardiac disorders, medical conditions including endocrine and metabolic abnormalities, psychiatric disorders, medication effects and drug or other substance use effects," Dr. Yavin says.

Research backs Dr. Yavin's statement. Generally, studies have shown heart palpitations can be triggered by underlying heart conditions, mental health issues and other factors like caffeine and alcohol use.

More specifically, Dr. Yavin says a partial list of heart palpitation causes include:

  • Stress and anxiety

  • Consuming caffeine, alcohol, nicotine or amphetamines

  • Strenuous exercise

  • Dehydration

  • Fever and infection

  • Hormonal changes, such as hyperthyroidism or hypoglycemia

  • Certain medications, such as beta blockers

  • Thyroid disorders

Drs. Serwer and Yavin also point out that heart palpitations can be a flag of a heart condition.

"Abnormal heart rhythms such as Atrial Fibrillation, Supraventricular Tachycardia, Ventricular Fibrillation or Ventricular Tachycardia can also cause palpitations," Dr. Serwer explains.

This information may sound jargon-y and scary. However, your care team can walk you through the next steps, which is why...

Related: If You Want to Lower Your Heart Attack Risk, Cardiologists Say You Should Do This One Thing Every Day

What to Do Instead of Ignoring Heart Palpitations

"Seek medical attention to identify what is causing the palpitations and to determine if there is a reversible cause," Dr. Serwer says. "We often prescribe heart monitors to identify the abnormal heart rhythm."

According to Dr. Serwer, the doctor may order bloodwork to check your kidney and thyroid functions and electrolyte levels, explaining, "Depending on the heart rhythm, we may prescribe medicine or consider performing cardiac ablations to treat the condition."

Dr. Yavin agrees that it's essential to get care if you think you're experiencing heart palpitations. While you wait for your appointment, he suggests:

  • Sitting or lying down

  • Trying to relax

  • Taking deep, slow breaths

  • Drinking water to stay hydrated

Sometimes, heart palpitations can't wait for an appointment. Dr. Yavin urges people to go to the emergency room for immediate care (or get a person to the ER) if they have:

  • Chest pain

  • Shortness of breath while resting

  • Loss of consciousness

  • Extreme weakness

Related: 25 Foods That Are Good For Your Heart, From Fruits and Veggies to Heart-Healthy Nuts and Seeds

Other Tips for Heart Palpitations

Medical care is critical and life-saving if a person has heart palpitations. After a proper diagnosis, cardiologists say other tips can help people manage heart palpitations. Some may help prevent them in the first place or reduce the risk that they're a regular event.

"Get an adequate amount of sleep to reduce stress on your body, as sleep deprivation might cause and aggravate already existing palpitations," Dr. Yavin explains. "Manage stress through relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga or mindful techniques."

Dr. Yavin also advises against consuming stimulants like caffeine, nicotine or alcohol, explaining, "They can exacerbate palpitations."

What should you consume? "Ensure proper hydration to include 64 ounces of non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic fluids," Serwer says.

Finally, Dr. Serwer recommends playing detective, explaining, "Many inherited cardiac conditions may present as palpitations, and the earlier they are identified, the better the outcome."

Next up: The Best Side to Sleep on for Heart Health, According to Cardiologists