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Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) Myths and Facts

By Michele Chan Santos
WebMD Feature

Atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib, happens when your normal heart beat or rhythm is changed and may not be able to pump enough blood. About 1% of Americans have AFib.

Millions of people with long-lasting AFib live quite well, said Gordon F. Tomaselli, MD, director of the Division of Cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a past president of the American Heart Association. "It's very possible to live a normal life for many years."

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with AFib, it’s important to separate the myths from the facts. Here’s what you need to know:

Myth: People with atrial fibrillation shouldn't drive.

Fact:  "This is not true," Tomaselli says. "It really depends on your symptoms. If you have dizziness, lightheadedness, and are passing out, then clearly you shouldn't drive until your symptoms are cared for." Once your condition is under control through medication or other treatments, it's OK to drive, he says.

Myth: People with atrial fibrillation shouldn't have sex.

Fact: "That's false," says Dr. Richard Wu, MD, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "There is no medical reason for them not to. Simply having AFib does not mean having to give up intimacy."

Myth: You can get AFib from drinking coffee.

Fact:  There's no link between drinking coffee in moderation and AFib, Wu says. "Actually, it's the opposite. A moderate amount of caffeine gives you a lower risk."

Myth: Eating ice cream or drinking something cold always leads to AFib.

Fact: Some people’s heart rhythms do change after having cold drinks or eating ice cream, Wu says. This is because your food pipe, or esophagus, which can be sensitive to cold, runs right behind the top part of your heart, which is where the heartbeat gets changed in AFib, Tomaselli says. Because the esophagus and the heart are close together, you might have an irregular heartbeat.

This doesn’t mean you can’t eat your favorite ice cream again. Many people with AFib aren’t affected this way, and even in many who are, it won’t be a trigger every time, Tomaselli says. 

Myth: Only older people develop atrial fibrillation.

Fact: "It can occur in anyone at any age," Tomaselli says. "But it is more likely the older we get." Wu says that many with AFib are diagnosed between the ages of 50 and 65.

Myth: You would know if you had atrial fibrillation.

Fact: About 15% of AFib patients have no symptoms before diagnosis, according to Wu: "A patient might come in for a routine physical and their doctor notices there is an irregularity." Other patients might not realize they have AFib, but "they know something is not quite right," Tomaselli says. "For example, if their tolerance for exercise has changed." If something feels off, see your doctor.

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