adult heart murmur

Heart Murmurs in Adults: 5 Things to Know

Heart murmurs that are present from childhood are generally the result of a congenital heart defect (meaning it was present at birth) and aren’t all threatening to health. Heart murmurs with an adult onset, however, are generally abnormal and the result of a cardiac issue. Here are 5 important things to know about heart murmurs that appear later in life. 

Adult heart murmurs often arise from an acquired problem with the heart valves or other structural abnormalities.

Unless your heart murmur has been an ongoing issue from childhood, it’s unlikely that it is the result of a congenital abnormality. There are several different issues that may cause heart murmurs. The heart gets worn out from working hard through the years, just like the rest of your body. Damage can occur, to the valves in particular, making the heart “murmur” as the blood flows through.

A murmur is when the blood makes a whooshing or swishing noise while pumping through the heart. In addition to problems with the heart itself, fever, infection, anxiety, and thyroid problems may lead to a heart murmur. Specific causes of acquired heart murmurs include: valve calcification (valves become harder and/or narrower, making blood flow difficult); endocarditis (an infection in the lining and valves of the heart); and rheumatic fever (a rare but dangerous complication of untreated strep throat). 

Not all heart murmurs acquired in adulthood are abnormal. 

Just like childhood heart murmurs, adults too can develop ones that are asymptomatic. The murmur may even disappear after a short time. Pregnant women can develop a heart murmur from the increased amount of blood that flows during pregnancy. Being active can also increase your blood flow, causing the swishing and whooshing characteristic of a murmur. Running a fever, hyperthyroidism, and anemia (a condition in which the amount of red blood cells are insufficient to carry oxygen around the body) may also increase blood flow sufficiently to cause an ongoing (but potentially temporary) innocent heart murmur. 

Heart murmurs are graded by their volume and categorized by six other aspects. 

A cardiologist is a doctor who specializes in the heart and cardiovascular system. Some of these doctors are so practiced they can pinpoint the characteristics and causes of a heart murmur just by listening with a stethoscope. Others may rely on further diagnostic testing (chest x-rays, echocardiograms, electrocardiograms, or cardiac catheterization) to accurately describe heart murmurs. The volume of a heart murmur is rated one (softest) to six (loudest).

Other important aspects of the heart murmur include how intense it is, where the murmur is specifically occurring, pitch (if the sound is a high or low frequency), whether a different position alters the murmur and if activity affects it, as well as when during the heartbeat the murmur occurs and how long it continues. Murmurs may be systolic (during the heart’s contraction), diastolic (during relaxation), or continuous (all the time). 

An innocent heart murmur usually doesn’t cause any symptoms, but an abnormal heart murmur can present quite a variety of signs. 

When the heart murmur is innocent, it can be present for years without anyone noticing because it doesn’t cause problems—and it may carry on in this manner for years after diagnosis. An abnormal heart murmur, however, may interfere with the cardiovascular system, causing coughing or difficulty breathing, dizziness or fainting, blueing of the skin, weight gain or swelling, swelling of the liver or neck veins, sweating even while sedentary, and/or chest pain.

Abnormal heart murmurs are often treatable, depending upon the underlying cause.

If there are no issues or problems resulting from the murmur, there’s usually no need to begin treatment. Engaging in a heart-healthy diet and getting recommended amounts of exercise can make an enormous difference in your heart’s ability to function, and thus can help improve the murmur. Depending upon the underlying cause of abnormal heart murmurs, various medications may be sufficient to control symptoms. In more serious cases, surgical procedures to repair or replace valves (or fix whatever other issue might be causing the murmur or heart condition) may be necessary. 

Last Updated: September 23, 2016