What is a heart murmur?

A heart murmur can only be detected with a stethoscope. The "murmur" is in fact a whooshing or swishing sound between heartbeats. A heart murmur is usually harmless (sometimes called "innocent"), caused by rapid blood flow to the heart, such as during exercise or pregnancy, or it may occur when a child experiences a growth spurt. In some cases, the murmur may be caused be a condition such as anemia or hyperthyroidism. People with an innocent heart murmur may live their entire lives without ever having any related symptoms or problems with their hearts.

Depending on the location, timing and loudness of your heart murmur, a doctor can determine whether the murmur is innocent or abnormal. An abnormal murmur may be a sign of another condition, such as heart valve disease or a congenital heart defect. In some cases, infection of the heart (endocarditis) may be the cause.

People with abnormal heart murmurs may have symptoms such as:

  • Bluish skin
  • Chronic cough
  • Enlarged neck veins
  • Heavy sweating (even when you're not exerting yourself)
  • Shortness of breath

Who's at risk for heart murmur?

You may be at higher risk of having a heart murmur if you have a family history of heart problems or you have certain medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis, or pulmonary hypertension. Some babies are at higher risk for heart murmurs if their mothers were ill with certain conditions during pregnancy, such as diabetes, or if the mother took certain kinds of medications or illegal drugs.

Diagnosis and testing for heart murmur

If you're experience symptoms that concern you, or you're at risk for heart problems, be sure to talk with your doctor. Your doctor will perform a complete physical exam and review of your medical history, and may recommend certain tests, such as:

You may also be referred to a cardiologist who has expertise in care of the heart. The heart murmur itself is not a condition to be treated, but depending on the type of heart murmur, you may be treated for your symptoms and other conditions.