A heart murmur is an extra sound heard in your heartbeat, usually only audible over a doctor’s stethoscope. Some can be very quiet whilst others make a swishing noise. Although most are harmless (innocent murmurs), they can also be indicators of a more severe heart problem (abnormal murmurs).
An innocent murmur occurs when blood is moving noisily through a healthy heart. They may be caused by a faster blood flow than usual or by an increased volume of blood passing through the heart. Certain illnesses, such as anaemia or having a fever, can cause the faster blood flow. Innocent murmurs are very common in children and are also often heard in pregnant women.
Abnormal murmurs are often due to congenital heart defects, where parts of the heart or the blood vessels attached to it do not develop properly before birth. Septal defects are holes in the septum, which is the wall separating the right and left sides of the heart. Valve defects can generally be split into valves that are too narrow, or valves that leak due to not closing properly. Hearts and valves can also become damaged or overworked as a result of other illnesses, such as rheumatic fever and heart attacks, or due to ageing.
If a heart murmur is related to another heart problem, other symptoms may be present. These may include blue colouring of the skin, fast breathing, chest pain, dizziness and shortness of breath. A heart murmur will normally be noticed during a physical examination in a routine checkup. There is a grading scale from 1 to 6 which GPs use to measure the volume of a heart murmur, and they also evaluate the pitch, timing, length and location of the sound, both within the heartbeat cycle and in the chest.
If a murmur is thought to be abnormal, a chest x-ray will normally be taken. An electocardiogram is another common test, which measures the heartbeat. Treatment for abnormal murmurs varies according to the individual situation, but may include medicine or surgery. Innocent murmurs do not require treatment as the heart is normal and healthy.
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