8 Things Caregivers Should Know About Atrial Fibrillation


Chris Iliades, MD

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If your spouse or a parent has been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (afib), he or she may feel confused, frightened and overwhelmed. Fortunately, there's a lot that you can do as a caregiver to help your loved one better manage the condition.

1. Know the Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation symptoms are caused by abnormal electrical activity in the heart. The upper chambers of the heart beat in a rapid and disorganized way. Symptoms can come and go, but they include fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pressure or pain, and palpitations (feelings of fluttering, racing, or pounding in the chest).

2. Know the Symptoms of Stroke

The main concern about atrial fibrillation is that it can lead to life-threatening problems. A blood clot may form in one of the upper heart chambers and travel to the brain, causing a stroke. People with afib are five to seven times more likely to have such a stroke. A stroke is a medical emergency that requires a call to 911. Symptoms can develop suddenly and include:

  • Numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg, usually on only one side of the body

  • Comprehension problems, like mental confusion and difficulty speaking or understanding what others are saying

  • Vision problems, in either one or both eyes

  • Dizziness

  • Trouble with balance and walking

3. Know the Symptoms of Heart Failure

Heart failure, also called congestive heart failure, is the other serious problem that atrial fibrillation can cause. Over time, afib can weaken the heart and reduce its ability to pump.

When the heart is not pumping well, not enough oxygen-rich blood flows to the body, and fluid starts to back up in the lungs. Symptoms include weight gain, cough, shortness of breath, weakness, and swelling in the legs and ankles. Always let the healthcare provider know about these symptoms.

4. Know About Anticoagulant Medications

Anticoagulant medications, sometimes called blood thinners, are important for preventing blood clots that cause stroke. If your loved one is taking warfarin, he or she will need to get a blood test about once a month to make sure the blood is not too thin or too thick. It's important to keep these appointments.

Ask the healthcare provider about guidelines for taking medications that may interfere with anticoagulants. These include antibiotics, vitamins, and cough and cold medicines. Let the healthcare provider know if your loved one has any bruising or prolonged bleeding.

5. Know About Heart Rate and Rhythm Medications

These are the other common medications taken for atrial fibrillation. They slow down the heart rate and keep the heartbeat regular. Make sure your loved one takes these medications as prescribed.

Know that there are several types of rhythm control medications, and they do not work for everyone. They may also stop working after a while and need to be changed or adjusted. Let the healthcare provider know if your loved one's atrial fibrillation symptoms develop or get worse while on any of these medications.

6. Know About Atrial Fibrillation Triggers

At Your Appointment

What to Ask Your Doctor About Atrial Fibrillation

Certain substances can stimulate the heart and trigger atrial fibrillation. The main triggers to avoid are nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, and over-the-counter cough and cold medications. The doctor may say that drinking alcohol in moderation is permissible, but that heavy drinking is not.

The caffeine in coffee, soda or tea can stimulate the heart, especially in people who are sensitive to it. Many cough and cold medications contain heart stimulants. Always check with your loved one's healthcare provider before he or she takes any new medication. Smoking is a huge threat to heart health. If your loved one is still smoking, ask a care provider about effective ways to quit.

7. Know About the Importance of Regular Physical Activity

Getting regular physical activity is an important part of a heart-healthy lifestyle. The first thing to do is ask a healthcare provider about what type of activity and level of exertion is best for your loved one.

Regular physical activity may help improve your loved one's mood, reduce stress, improve sleep, and help maintain a healthy weight. You can help by joining in the physical activity. Pick something you enjoy doing together, like taking an afternoon walk or working in the garden.

8. Know About the Stress of Living With Afib

Having afib can be frightening and stressful because the condition is unpredictable and there is an increased risk of stroke. Stress may also trigger symptoms. For all these reasons, many people with atrial fibrillation go through periods of depression.

Find ways to recognize and relieve stress for both of you through exercise, deep breathing exercises, and pleasurable activities. As a caregiver, your #1 priority has to be your own health. Imagine the consequences if you become unavailable. If you're overwhelmed by the stress in your life, consider seeking help from a mental health professional.

Key Takeaways

  • Atrial fibrillation can lead to life-threatening problems including stroke. Know the symptoms of stroke and call 911 if your loved one experiences symptoms.

  • Anticoagulant medications, sometimes called blood thinners, are important for preventing blood clots that cause stroke.

  • Certain substances, including nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, and over-the-counter cough and cold medications, can stimulate the heart and trigger atrial fibrillation.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Apr 17, 2017

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Medical References

  1. Shea JB and Sears SF. A Patient's Guide to Living With Atrial Fibrillation. Circulation. 2008;117:340-343.
  2. Atrial Fibrillation (Afib). Cleveland Clinic. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/heart/atrial_fibrillation/afib.aspx.
  3. Heart Failure. PubMed Health. U.S. National Library of Medicine. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001211/
  4. Recognizing Stroke. National Stroke Association. http://www.stroke.org/site/PageServer?pagename=symp

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