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If someone you love has atrial fibrillation (AFib), you might be wondering how to help them manage their condition and stay healthy. You can help your loved one by learning about symptoms and treatments for AFib as well as how to talk with their medical team.

What It's Like to Have AFib

AFib is the most common type of irregular heartbeat. With AFib, instead of expanding and contracting in a regular rhythm, the heart’s two upper chambers, called the atria, sometimes quiver at a fast, irregular pace. 

When your loved one has an episode of AFib, they may have symptoms including palpitations, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Or they may not have symptoms. Even if your loved doesn't have symptoms, neither of you should ignore AFib. It’s a serious heart problem that can be caused by, or made worse by, other heart problems like high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, and congestive heart failure.

The Basics of AFib Medications

Your loved one may need several medications to control their AFib.

  • Blood thinners, called anticoagulants, help lower their risk of stroke, which is five times higher because they have AFib. These medicines can cut the chance of having a first stroke by 68%.
  • Rate-control medicines help the heart beat at a normal speed.
  • Anti-arrhythmic medicines help reset the rhythm of the heartbeats.

“It’s very important for someone with AFib to take their medications as prescribed by their cardiologist and not skip a dose,” says Gregory Feld, MD, director of the cardiac electrophysiology program at the University of California, San Diego Medical Center. “Sometimes even a single missed dose can lead to a recurrence of arrhythmias.” One of your roles as caregiver can be to make sure your loved one gets the right medicines every day and on time.

Communicating With the AFib Care Team

“There are positives and negatives, risks and rewards to balance with each of these drugs,” says Feld. “That’s why it is so important to communicate openly and regularly with the care team. My patients will come in regularly so that we can put them on monitors and watch their electrical activity. And in between those appointments, I want to hear about any changes or new symptoms they’re experiencing.”

Because medicines for AFib can interact with many herbal preparations, supplements, vitamins, and some foods, ask your loved one's cardiologist about what they should and shouldn’t take. Never give them a new supplement or vitamin -- no matter how “natural” it seems -- without first consulting the doctor.

Even when your loved one takes medicine for AFib, they may have an episode of fibrillation. It’s important to watch for symptoms of AFib and tell the cardiologist. The doctor can evaluate whether the treatment needs to change.

“Atrial fibrillation is a condition that requires a long-term partnership with a cardiologist and a team of specialists,” says Feld. “People can live long, healthy lives with AFib as long as they work with their doctors to keep it under control.” As the caregiver, you can make sure that happens.

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