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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's 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 making this happen.

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

Symptoms of ectopic beats

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 that 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're 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 have them for a few weeks or months, and then they go away again.

Many people have extra beats without any symptoms at all.

Causes of ectopic beats

Several things can make extra beats worse, such as:

Self-care with ectopic beats

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 completely.

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

Treating ectopic beats

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.

But 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. Only a few people need them. 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.

Written by Cardiologist, Canterbury DHB. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed December 2021.

Page reference: 196532

Review key: HIHPL-25273