What are Heart Murmurs, and When Should You be Concerned?

heart murmur

Whether you are afraid while watching a tense scene in a scary movie or feeling nervous before a big job interview, the sounds that your heart makes can tell you a lot. Some of those sounds are called heart murmurs, and they can often help doctors tell if there is something wrong with your heart.

Instead of the normal “lub-DUP” sound, a heart murmur produces a whooshing or swishing noise. Fortunately, most heart murmurs are harmless, but sometimes they can be a sign of a more serious condition.

What causes heart murmurs?

Heart murmurs occur when the blood that flows through the heart’s valves is choppy and irregular. There are three types of heart murmurs: diastolic, systolic and continuous. Diastolic murmurs occur when the blood is filling the heart, systolic murmurs occur when the heart is emptying, and continuous murmurs occur during the entire heartbeat.

“Harmless heart murmurs, called innocent murmurs, are common in newborns and children,” said Adil Waheed, DO, a board-certified interventional cardiologist at Penn Highlands Cardiology in Monongahela, Pa. “They can be caused by fever, anemia, hyperthyroidism, periods of rapid growth and physical activity. They often go away over time, but they may persist throughout life without causing serious problems.”

Worrisome heart murmurs, on the other hand, are usually caused by a congenital heart defect that is present from birth, such as a hole in the wall between the lower and upper chambers or a structural problem (called a cardiac shunt) that causes irregular blood flow between the chambers or blood vessels.

In adults, many heart murmurs are caused by problems with the heart valves that are developed later in life, such as calcium deposits, infection of the inner heart lining and valves (called endocarditis) and rheumatic fever.

What are the symptoms of heart murmurs?

Innocent heart murmurs typically do not produce symptoms. Symptoms of worrisome heart murmurs depend on the cause but may include:

  • Chest pain
  • Blue or gray fingertips or lips
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Heavy sweating
  • Shortness of breath

When should you see a doctor?

If you experience any of the symptoms listed above or are concerned about a possible heart murmur, talk to your doctor. If they believe you may have a murmur, they will likely refer you to a cardiologist for further testing. If the murmur is worrisome, your cardiologist may recommend medication, such as blood thinners, water pills, ACE inhibitors or beta blockers, to treat it. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to correct the condition that is causing the murmur.

Can heart murmurs be prevented?

“While there is no known prevention for heart murmurs, making healthy lifestyle changes can improve heart health and prevent some conditions that are linked to murmurs in adults,” said Dr. Waheed.

The cardiologists at Penn Highlands Healthcare diagnose and treat all types of heart conditions, including murmurs, arrhythmia, atrial fibrillation, blockages, congestive heart failure and more. For more information, visit www.phhealthcare.org/heartcare.