Atrial Fibrillation (AFib)

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2024

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a heart condition that affects millions of people around the world. It is the most common type of arrhythmia. An arrhythmia is a heart rhythm disorder in which the heart beats too fast, too slow, or irregularly.1,2

With AFib, the heart beats too fast and is irregular. The heart's upper chambers (atria) quiver instead of contracting the way they should. This affects the normal flow of blood through the heart. AFib can lead to many health issues, including:1

  • Blood clots
  • Strokes
  • Heart failure

Types of atrial fibrillation

There are several types of AFib. They are classified by the length of time a person has symptoms and the severity of those symptoms. They are:3

  • Paroxysmal AFib – AFib episodes that come and go at random times. These episodes may happen without any signs or symptoms. Episodes typically go away within 24 hours, but they can last for up to a week. This type of AFib can be treated with medicine, or it may resolve on its own.
  • Persistent AFib – Irregular heartbeats that last for more than 1 week. This type of AFib usually requires medical help to restore normal heart rhythm.
  • Long-term persistent AFib – This form of AFib lasts for more than a year. Treating this type can be harder than treating other types of AFib.
  • Permanent AFib – People with permanent AFib have a consistently irregular heartbeat. Restoring normal heart rhythm with medicine and other treatments does not work for them.

Who does AFib affect?

AFib can affect people of all ages and backgrounds, but it is more common in older adults. While it can happen in children, it is very rare. Certain groups may be at higher risk for AFib, including:4,5

  • Those with a family history – People with a family history of AFib may be more likely to have the condition.
  • People with other heart conditions – Those with valve problems or a history of heart attack, for example, are at increased risk for AFib.
  • People with comorbidities – People with other conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are more likely to develop AFib.
  • Athletes – Some athletes may experience AFib due to extreme physical exertion, dehydration, or underlying heart conditions. Athletes should be aware of their heart health and share any unusual symptoms with their doctor.
  • Heavy alcohol drinkers – Drinking large quantities of alcohol in 1 sitting (binge drinking) can increase a person’s risk of AFib.

How is AFib treated?

Treatment for AFib usually consists of a combination of things, such as:5-7

  • Medicine – Examples include blood thinners, heart rate controllers, and heart rhythm controllers.
  • Nonsurgical procedures – Examples include electrical cardioversion, radiofrequency ablation, and catheter ablation.
  • Surgical procedures – Examples include pacemaker placement and a heart surgery called MAZE where a surgeon creates scar tissue in the heart to prevent the recurrence of Afib.

Prevention is a big area of focus for people at risk for AFib. It is important that they adopt lifestyle habits that can reduce their risk, such as:8

  • Healthy diet
  • Regular exercise
  • Stress management
  • Limit alcohol intake

What is the prognosis for AFib?

In recent years, life expectancy has improved for people with AFib. With the right treatment, many people with AFib can lead full and active lives. The prognosis for AFib depends on the type, the underlying causes, and how well the condition is managed.9,10

While AFib itself is not considered life-threatening, its complications, such as stroke or heart failure, can have serious consequences. If left untreated, AFib doubles the risk of heart-related death. It can increase the risk of stroke by 5x and in fact, as many as 1 in 5 people who have strokes have AFib.1,9,10

Regular medical checkups, symptom tracking, and consistent treatment can help prevent and manage these complications. If you think you may have AFib or are concerned about your heart health, talk with your doctor. They may recommend you see a heart specialist for more tests to reach a diagnosis.8

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Treatment results and side effects can vary from person to person. This treatment information is not meant to replace professional medical advice. Talk to your doctor about what to expect before starting and while taking any treatment.