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Atrial fibrillation (AF)

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Atrial fibrillation (often called AF or AFib) is a problem with the heart's electrical system, causing a change in the heart's rhythm. Instead of a normal steady heartbeat, the heartbeat is fast and varies in speed (irregular).

AF is the commonest heart rhythm problem, especially in those over the age of 65. AF can be permanent or can come and go (known as paroxysmal AF).

If you have AF, you're more at risk of having a stroke. This is because the AF can cause blood clots to form in your heart. The blood clots can break off and travel to your brain, which can cause a stroke.

Atrial flutter is similar to atrial fibrillation and is diagnosed and treated in the same way.

Causes of AF

Several things make you more likely to have AF. These include high blood pressure, heart disease, being overweight, drinking alcohol and sleep apnoea.

Symptoms of AF

Many people with AF do not know have any symptoms and it's only picked up when their pulse is checked.

If you have AF, you may feel your heart racing or having extra beats (palpitations). You may also feel short of breath, dizzy or weak. If you have any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your GP.

Diagnosing AF

AF is diagnosed by checking your pulse to feel if it's beating regularly. Your GP or practice nurse can do this or you can learn to do this yourself.

If your heartbeat is abnormal, you will have an Electrocardiogram (ECG) test to check for atrial fibrillation.

If your atrial fibrillation comes and goes, you may have a test that involves wearing a Holter monitor. A Holter monitor is a device that records your heartbeat for 24 to 48 hours.

Self-care for AF

Following the advice on Preventing angina and heart attacks will reduce your chance of getting AF and help if you have AF.

Maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol and getting help for sleep apnoea will also help.

Treating AF

There are several treatment options for AF, including:

Cardioversion is a treatment option for some people with atrial fibrillation. This is when an electric shock is applied to your chest to restore your heart rhythm. It's done under a general anaesthetic.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed December 2021.

Page reference: 48126

Review key: HIAFB-25271