How do you know if you have an irregular heartbeat?

Speaking to doctor about irregular heartbeat. (Getty Images)
Speak to your doctor about symptoms of an irregular heartbeat. (Getty Images)

With recent news that more people have been dying this year from irregular heartbeats, it's no surprise if that's made you feel more concerned about your own health.

But the good news is that most people who do experience an abnormal heart rhythm can lead a normal life if properly diagnosed, so rather than feeling worried, it's a good reminder to be aware of what your symptoms may, or may not, mean.

Heart palpitations

Strange patterns in your heartbeat, like heart palpitations, which is when it becomes more noticeable, are usually harmless.

Heart palpitations may feel uncomfortable or unusual and you may experience them in your chest, neck or throat, which can last for seconds, minutes or longer. The NHS explains it might feel like your heartbeat is:

  • racing or beating very fast

  • irregular, with skipped or extra beats ('ectopic' beats)

  • pounding or thumping

  • fluttering

Man stressed at work. (Getty Images)
Heart palpitations can be caused by factors in your everyday life, like stress. (Getty Images)

Heart palpitation causes

While they might feel scary, heart palpitations are common and usually nothing to worry about. Instead, they are often caused by:

  • vigorous exercise

  • lack of sleep

  • stress and anxiety

  • medicines

  • alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and recreational drugs

Heart palpitations might also be a sign you're going through the menopause, or you might get them while pregnant. While less common, they can be caused by iron deficiency anaemia, an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) or a heart rhythm problem (arrhythmia).

Seek help if your heart palpitations keep coming back or they're getting worse, they last longer than a few minutes, you have a heart condition, you have a family history or you also have other symptoms. If you have heart palpitations with chest pain, shortness of breath, feeling faint or fainting call 999 or go to A&E.

What is an arrhythmia?

Man has chest pain. Concept of recurrent heart disease and lung disease.
While irregular heartbeats might be caused by anxiety, it's a good idea to check whether it's an arrhythmia. (Getty Images)

An arrhythmia or heart rhythm problem, according to the NHS, is experienced by more than two million people in the UK. The key here is early diagnosis, which can help you to safely manage it.

Heart rhythm problems happen when the electrical signals that coordinate the heart's beat don't function properly, making it beat too fast, slow or irregularly, for example.

Atrial fibrillation (AF)

This is the most common type of arrhythmia, which causes an irregular and often abnormally fast heart rate. You can measure your heart rate by checking your pulse.

To be aware, a normal heart rate should be regular and between 60 and 100 beats a minute when you're resting.

Symptoms may include an irregular heartbeat that can someones be considerably higher than 100, dizziness, shortness of breath, tiredness, heart palpitations, or in some cases you might not experience any symptoms at all.

Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT)

This is the name for episodes when your heart suddenly beats faster than usual at rest, often then also slowing down abruptly. As well as your heart beating faster, you may experience chest pain, weakness, breathlessness, lightheadedness, tiredness, feeling sick or vomiting.


This is when the heart beats more slowly than normal (remember 'normal' begins at 60).

Heart block

This is when the heart beats more slowly than usual or with an abnormal rhythm. First-degree 'heart block' wouldn't cause any symptoms, symptoms of second-degree could include feeling lightheaded, dizzy, faint; or having chest pain or shortness of breath – or you may feel no different. Third-degree would cause you to feel faint, breathless or confused, and experience extreme tiredness and chest pain.

Call 999 if your symptoms are severe or come on quickly.

Ventricular fibrillation

This is a rare, rapid and 'disorganised' rhythm of heartbeats that leads to loss of consciousness and worse, if not immediately treated.

Who do arrhythmias affect?

Watch: Tips for improving your heart health after COVID

Anyone can have an arrhythmia, while atrial fibrillation is more common in older people. As triggers include viral illnesses, alcohol, tobacco, changes in posture, exercise, drinks containing caffeine, medicines and recreational drugs, you can consider what lifestyle changes you are able to make or things to avoid to help prevent or trigger it.

You may also be at risk if you have had a heart attack, heart failure or have had severe COVID-19. Having arial fibrillation means your risk of stroke is five times higher.

Use Arrhythmia Alliance's heart rhythm checklists to help recognise your symptoms more and speak to your doctor about them. Make sure you see a GP if you are concerned about any of the above, who will be able to talk you through diagnosis, treatment and staying safe with an arrhythmia.

Make sure you seek immediate medical care if you have any of the more urgent symptoms.

The British Heart Foundation website states: "Most arrhythmias are manageable. This means that with the right treatment you can carry on living as you were before you were diagnosed."

But as it can be emotionally and practically challenging for you and your loved ones, don't hesitate to get support from your GP for this too, or advice from the charity on its helpline at 0300 330 3311, weekdays 9am-5pm, or speak to others with heart conditions via a support group or online community.

Remember, if your ability to drive is affected, you should let your insurance company and the DVLA know, which your doctor can advise on. You may also want to talk to the occupational health department or HR at work about adjusting your role to suit your health requirements, if need be.