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Arrhythmia

Key points

  • Arrhythmias can happen at any age and having one doesn’t necessarily mean you have a heart problem.
  • Symptoms will depend on the type and severity of your arrhythmia, but may include feeling dizzy, breathless or tired.
  • Often it isn’t possible to find a cause for an arrhythmia but they may develop as a result of a health condition, such as diabetes or coronary heart disease.
  • You may not need any treatment but if you do, it may include taking medicines, for example beta-blockers, to control your heart rate.

Video: Palpitations or heart attack

This section contains answers to frequently asked questions about this topic. Questions have been suggested by health professionals, website feedback and requests via email.

Sometimes my heart skips a beat and thumps. What is this and do I need treatment?

Answer

Sometimes it may feel as though your heart has missed a beat or thumped suddenly. This is likely to be an ectopic heartbeat. Ectopic beats don’t usually cause problems but very occasionally they can be a sign of a more serious condition.

Explanation

Usually your heartbeat originates in the sinus node in your heart. An ectopic beat occurs when an extra beat starts somewhere else in your heart – this happens before the usual beat can come from the sinus node. Ectopic beats are generally completely harmless and don’t usually need treatment. However, if you do find the ectopic beats worrying, you can be treated with a beta-blocker or other type of medicine. If the ectopic beats are very troublesome, you may be able to have a procedure to destroy the abnormal area of heart tissue.

Ectopic heartbeats are very common and you may not notice if you have one. However, if you have any other symptoms, such as chest pain, see your GP.

Very rarely, ectopic beats can be caused by an underlying problem such as:

  • thyroid disease
  • inflammation of your heart caused by a virus (myocarditis)
  • a problem with your heart muscle (cardiomyopathy)
  • heart valve disease

If your ectopic beats are very frequent, or if you have other signs of heart disease, your GP may refer you to a cardiologist (a doctor who specialises in identifying and treating conditions of the heart and blood vessels).

I think my medicine is affecting my heart rate – should I stop taking it?

Answer

No. Don’t stop taking a prescription medicine without speaking to your GP first. If you’re taking an over-the-counter medicine, ask your pharmacist for advice.

Explanation

Everyone has some variation in their heartbeat and you may occasionally feel a palpitation. A palpitation is an awareness of your heartbeat, often described as a thumping in your chest.

An arrhythmia is a disturbance of the usual electrical rhythm of your heart. You may get an arrhythmia regularly or just occasionally.

Arrhythmias can be caused by taking certain medicines, such as those listed below.

  • Beta-blockers, which are used to treat some heart conditions, can cause a very slow heartbeat.
  • Some calcium-channel blockers (especially verapamil and diltiazem), which are mainly used to treat high blood pressure, slow down your heart rate and can lead to symptoms such as dizziness.
  • Levodopa, a medicine used to treat Parkinson’s disease, can cause sinus tachycardia.
  • Beta-2 agonists (such as salbutamol) that are used to treat asthma can cause tachycardia and arrhythmia.
  • Some over-the-counter cough and cold medicines that contain pseudoephedrine hydrochloride (for example Sudafed) can cause tachycardia. If you have a heart condition or blood pressure problems, be careful about using over-the-counter cold remedies. Always read the patient information that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your GP or pharmacist for advice.

Often these medicines only cause arrhythmias if you already have a heart problem, such as having had a heart attack or previous arrhythmia. It’s rare that they cause arrhythmias in people who don’t have heart problems.

It’s also possible that medicines that are prescribed to treat an arrhythmia can actually make it worse.

Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine, and if you think your medicine is causing an arrhythmia, speak to your doctor or pharmacist for more advice.

Can I drive a car or motorcycle if I have an arrhythmia?

Answer

The rules about whether or not you can drive if you have an arrhythmia are complicated and vary depending on what type you have. You will probably be able to drive a car or motorcycle as long as you don’t have any symptoms but it’s important to check. If you have a procedure to treat your arrhythmia, you will need to stop driving for a while. How long you have to wait before driving again will depend on the procedure and how well you recover.

Explanation

If you have an arrhythmia, it’s possible that you will be able to drive as long as you don’t have any symptoms that could distract you when you’re driving. You must stop driving if your arrhythmia causes any symptoms, such as dizziness or breathlessness. See your doctor for advice as you may need to change your treatment. Once your symptoms have been under control for at least four weeks you may be able start driving again, but you should discuss this with your doctor.

If you have a procedure to treat your arrhythmia, you won’t be able to drive for some time depending on what treatment you had. How long you have to stop driving for can range from a week to several months, and will also vary according to how severe your condition is and whether or not you have other conditions that may prevent you from driving. Not driving until it’s confirmed that your arrhythmia is under control means that you won’t be putting yourself or other drivers in danger.

The rules about driving if you have an arrhythmia are different if you drive a lorry or are responsible for passengers. If you’re in any doubt about driving, always follow your doctor’s advice and contact your motor insurer so that you’re aware of their recommendations.


Produced by Polly Kerr, Bupa Health Information Team, March 2013. 

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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