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HealthInfo Canterbury

Extra beats (ectopic beats)

Ectopic beats, also called extra beats or extra systoles, are a very common heart rhythm disturbance.

In everyone's heart, there is a part that works like a natural pacemaker, by setting the heart rate and rhythm. If you have extra beats, other parts of your heart are also making this happen.

What are the symptoms?

These can vary. It's typical to feel like your heart is skipping or missing a beat, or rolling over in your chest. You might also briefly feel short of breath, or as if your chest is tight.

You can feel each extra beat for a second or so, but a series of beats may last for minutes, or longer.

You generally feel these beats while resting, at the end of the day, after your evening meal, or in bed at night. They are generally less noticeable when you're exercising, but can happen after exercise.

It's normal to notice extra beats one day, and not the next. You might also have them for a few weeks or months, and then they go away again.

Many people have extra beats without any symptoms at all.

Are extra beats serious?

Although extra beats can be uncomfortable, they aren't usually serious. They don't damage or weaken your heart.

What makes extra beats worse?

Several things can make extra beats worse, such as:

How can I help myself?

Avoid anything that makes it worse. If you smoke, stop smoking. Avoid, or cut back as much as possible, any food or drink with caffeine in it.

If you drink alcohol, make sure you don't drink too much. Some people find any alcohol at all makes their extra beats worse – if this applies to you, avoid alcohol altogether.

Even though asthma medicines can make extra beats worse, you should not stop taking your asthma medicine unless your doctor advises you to do so. However, many cold medicines, even those you buy over the counter, can make extra beats worse and you should avoid those.

Will I need to take medicine?

Most people with extra beats don't need to take medicine. If you do need to take medicine, it will be one of two types.

Beta blockers

Beta blockers stop adrenaline from working on your heart, and reduce the extra beats. They also lower high blood pressure, treat angina, and protect your heart after a heart attack.

However, they can make you tired, and cause difficulty sleeping, unusual dreams, depression or impotence. They can also make asthma worse.

Anti-arrhythmic medicines

Other medicines that reduce extra beats are called anti-arrhythmic medicines. Few people need them, but your doctor will let you know if you need one.

Although these medicines can reduce extra beats, in some people they can make them worse. If the medicine makes your beats worse, you should contact your doctor as soon as possible.

What symptoms suggest something more serious?

Some other rhythm disturbances can be serious. If your heart races very quickly for a long time, or if you have dizzy spells or blackouts, you may have a more serious rhythm disturbance. Contact your doctor as soon as possible.

Written by Dr Ian Crozier, cardiologist, Canterbury DHB. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. February 2016.

Page reference: 196532

Review key: HIHPL-25273