What Is AFib And How Can You Tell If You Have It?

At Westchester Health, many of our patients, especially older ones, have AFib, or atrial fibrillation, a quivering or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other serious heart-related complications. According to the American Heart Association, at least 2.7 million Americans are living with AFib, which accounts for 15-20% of those who have strokes. Yet, many people are unaware that AFib is a serious condition. To share important information about this serious but treatable condition, we offer this blog and related resources.

James W. Catanese, MD, FACC

What is AFib?

The irregular heartbeats associated with AFib are caused by abnormal electrical signals in the atria, the two upper chambers of the heart. When these electrical impulses circulate through the atria, they cause the atria to contract irregularly (quiver) instead of beating evenly to move blood into the ventricles effectively.

When you have AFib, different areas of your heart may beat too quickly, too slowly or in an uneven rhythm. When the lower chambers (ventricles) of your heart beat too quickly, this is known as AFib with a rapid ventricular response.

Animated illustration of AFib

To watch an animated illustration of what happens during atrial fibrillation, click here or on the image below. (courtesy of the American Heart Association)

8 things that can trigger an AFib episode

Many people with AFib experience temporary episodes brought on by a specific trigger. Recognizing these triggers and avoiding them can help you manage your AFib effectively. But be aware that each person’s experience is unique, and it may take some trial and error to determine what your personal triggers are. Awareness of your condition and of the situations that can potentially provoke an episode play a large role in helping you control your AFib symptoms and live a healthy life. According to Healthline, here are the eight most common triggers:

1. Fatigue and illness

Sleep deprivation, physical illness and recent surgery are all common triggers for AFib. Whenever your body is not at 100%, you could be suffering from physical stress, which makes abnormal electrical activity in your heart more likely to occur. Eating nutritious well-balanced meals and getting enough sleep, especially when traveling, is crucial for people who have AFib.

2. Intense emotions

A range of strong emotions, good and bad, can trigger AFib. If you’re upset, sad, scared, anxious, nervous, extremely happy or are experiencing severe trauma, this can cause your heart to race or skip a beat, which can set off an AFib episode.

3. Hormones

The normal fluctuation of hormones may trigger AFib in some women. Research has found a connection between normal hormonal changes during a woman’s menstrual cycle and the development of AFib. In addition, going through menopause at a younger age may lower a woman’s risk of developing AFib.

4. Exercise

In rare cases, an increase in physical exertion can touch off an AFib event. However, exercise helps people cope with atrial fibrillation, so talk to your doctor about the effect exercise might have on your AFib.

5. Medication

If you have AFib, talk to your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medications or dietary supplements. Cold medications and nasal spray decongestants are not recommended for some people with heart arrhythmias. Your physician will tell you which specific medications are safe for you to use, or suggest alternatives.

6. Alcohol

Alcohol is a well-proven AFib trigger. Some people experience symptoms from just one drink, while others might not be affected unless several drinks are consumed.

7. Caffeine

Caffeine is a known stimulant that can accelerate your central nervous system and raise your heart rate. For some people, this can generate an AFib event. But each person is different. If you feel that caffeine makes your arrhythmias worse, you should avoid coffee, tea, chocolate and caffeinated sodas.

8. Dehydration

Because a change in your body’s fluid levels can affect a number of bodily functions, including heart function, you may have an AFib event if you’re dehydrated. Exhaustion, a change in eating patterns and/or significant physical exertion can produce dehydration in some people. Alcohol and caffeinated drinks may also dehydrate you, further increasing your risk. To avoid this, drink plenty of water, especially in hot weather or when you exercise. Monitoring your salt intake can also help you avoid dehydration, as too much salt in your diet can lead to hypertension (high blood pressure), which is a major risk factor for AFib. You should aim for no more than 1,500 mg of salt daily.

Typical AFib symptoms

  • Feeling like your heart is skipping a beat, beating too fast or too hard, or fluttering
  • chest discomfort
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath
  • weakness
  • lightheadedness
  • dizziness
  • fainting
  • confusion
  • intolerance to exercise

Common treatments for AFib

  • beta-blockers to decrease your heart rate
  • calcium channel blockers to decrease your overall heart rate
  • sodium or potassium channel blockers to control your heart rhythm
  • digitalis glycosides to decrease your overall heart rate
  • blood thinners to prevent blood clots from forming and possibly causing a stroke

Read our blogs on the subject

We’ve written several informative blogs focusing on conditions of the cardiovascular system, which you can read here.

Helpful websites we recommend

Concerned that you may have AFib? Please come see us.

If you have AFib, or are worried that you’re at risk of developing it and would like guidance on ways to manage this condition, please call (914) 232-1919 to make an appointment with one of our Westchester Health cardiologists. We’ll examine you, evaluate your symptoms, possibly perform some tests, and together with you, decide on the best course of treatment going forward, given your individual health needs. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

By James W. Catanese, MD, FACC, a cardiologist with Westchester Health, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners