What to Know About AFib and Children

Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is not common in children. But symptoms and treatment may be unique in children with AFib.1

What is AFib?

The heart is made up of 4 rooms, or chambers. The two chambers on top are called the atria and the two on the bottom are called the ventricles. There are small doors, or valves, in between the atria, ventricles, and the blood vessels that bring blood into and out of the heart.2

The heart works in a specific pattern where the atria squeeze and the valves open to pour blood into the ventricles. Then the ventricles squeeze and the valves open to send blood out to the body.2

Heart conditions occur when the normal pattern of heart activity does not occur, or if there is an issue with atria, ventricles, or valves. One of these conditions is called afib. In AFib, the atria “fibrillate,” or twitch, instead of squeeze. This prevents blood from properly flowing through the blood vessels, heart, and body. It can also cause an irregular heart rhythm.2

How common is AFib in children?

AFib and other abnormal heart rhythms are very rare in children. Experts estimate that 1 in 1,500 to 1 in 3,000 children experience an abnormal heart rhythm.1

These rhythms most often occur in children who are born with heart defects or heart disease. They can also occur in children who have heart tumors or neuromuscular diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy, Friedrich ataxia, or limb-girdle muscular dystrophy.1

What are the symptoms of AFib in children?

The signs and symptoms of AFib can differ depending on how long the heart stays in that rhythm and how fast the heart is going. Children may struggle to explain their symptoms, especially if they are young. For infants and toddlers, this may mean that their symptoms last longer before they are detected.1

In very young children, you may see that they are pale, sweaty, or will not eat. For children who are old enough to explain their symptoms, they might describe feeling:1

  • Palpitations, or like their heart is racing
  • Skipped heartbeats
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or feeling faint
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue

How is AFib in children treated?

The treatment of AFib for children is similar to treatment for adults. There are two kinds of drugs that doctors may prescribe: drugs that control the heart rate and drugs that control the heart rhythm.4

Afib in children is more likely to be treated with heart rate control drugs. These drugs include esmolol, procainamide, and amiodarone. They help stop the episode of AFib.1,4

After the first episode of AFib is stabilized, long-term treatment might be necessary. This could include giving the child daily medicine. Or your child’s doctor may recommend surgery. Surgery is generally reserved for the last line of treatment, when medicines are not working.1

If you believe your child may have AFib, speak to their doctor.

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