Skip to Content

A-Fib (Atrial Fibrillation)


What is atrial fibrillation (a-fib)?

A-fib is an irregular heartbeat. It reduces your heart's ability to pump blood through your body. A-fib may come and go, or it may be a long-term condition. A-fib can cause life-threatening blood clots, stroke, or heart failure. It is important to treat and manage a-fib to help prevent these problems.

Heart Chambers

What increases my risk for a-fib?

  • High blood pressure, heart failure, or heart valve disease
  • Smoking
  • COPD, sleep apnea, a blood clot in your lung, or other lung diseases
  • Diabetes, obesity, or thyroid disease
  • Heavy alcohol use or large amounts of caffeine
  • Age 65 years or older
  • A family history of a-fib or other heart problems

What are the signs and symptoms of a-fib?

  • A heartbeat that races, pounds, or flutters
  • Weakness, severe tiredness, or confusion
  • Feeling lightheaded, sweaty, dizzy, or faint
  • Shortness of breath or anxiety
  • Chest pain or pressure

How is a-fib diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine you. Tell the provider about your symptoms, health conditions, and medicines. Tell the provider if you drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or use any illegal drugs. You will need an EKG to check your heart rhythm and how fast your heart beats. You may also need to wear a Holter monitor at home while you do your usual activities. The Holter monitor is a portable EKG machine.

Holter Monitor

How is a-fib treated?

Conditions that cause a-fib, such as thyroid disease, will be treated. You may also need any of the following:

  • Heart medicines help control your heart rate or rhythm. You may need more than one medicine to treat your symptoms.
  • Antiplatelet or blood thinner medicines help prevent blood clots and stroke.
  • Cardioversion is a procedure to return your heart rate and rhythm to normal. It can be done using medicines or electric shock.
  • A-fib ablation is a procedure that uses energy to burn a small area of heart tissue. This creates scar tissue and prevents electrical signals that cause a-fib. You may need this procedure more than once. Ask for more information on a-fib ablation.
  • A pacemaker may be inserted into your heart. A pacemaker is a device that controls your heartbeat. A pacemaker may be inserted during an ablation procedure or surgery. Ask your healthcare provider for more information on pacemakers.
  • Surgery may be needed if other procedures do not work. During surgery your healthcare provider will make cuts in the upper part of your heart. The provider will stitch the cuts together to create scar tissue. The scar tissue will prevent electrical signals that cause a-fib.

How can I manage a-fib?

  • Know your target heart rate. Learn how to take your pulse and monitor your heart rate.
  • Manage other health conditions. This includes high blood pressure, sleep apnea, thyroid disease, diabetes, and other heart conditions. Take medicine as directed and follow your treatment plan.
  • Limit or do not drink alcohol. Alcohol can make a-fib hard to manage. Ask your healthcare provider if it is safe for you to drink alcohol. A drink of alcohol is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of liquor.
  • Do not smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can cause heart and lung damage. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.
  • Eat heart-healthy foods. Heart healthy foods will help keep your cholesterol low. These include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, and fish. Replace butter and margarine with heart-healthy oils such as olive oil and canola oil.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Ask your healthcare provider how much you should weigh. Ask him or her to help you create a weight loss plan if you are overweight.
  • Exercise for 30 minutes most days of the week. Ask your healthcare provider about the best exercise plan for you.

Call 911 for any of the following:

  • You have any of the following signs of a heart attack:
    • Squeezing, pressure, or pain in your chest
    • You may also have any of the following:
      • Discomfort or pain in your back, neck, jaw, stomach, or arm
      • Shortness of breath
      • Nausea or vomiting
      • Lightheadedness or a sudden cold sweat
  • You have any of the following signs of a stroke:
    • Numbness or drooping on one side of your face
    • Weakness in an arm or leg
    • Confusion or difficulty speaking
    • Dizziness, a severe headache, or vision loss

When should I seek immediate care?

You have any of the following signs of a blood clot:

  • You feel lightheaded, are short of breath, and have chest pain.
  • You cough up blood.
  • You have swelling, redness, pain, or warmth in your arm or leg.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • Your heart rate is more than 110 beats per minute.
  • You have new or worsening swelling in your legs, feet, ankles, or abdomen.
  • You are short of breath, even at rest.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© Copyright IBM Corporation 2020 Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or IBM Watson Health

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

Learn more about A-Fib (Atrial Fibrillation)

Associated drugs

Symptoms and treatments

Mayo Clinic Reference