Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) Myths and Facts

From the WebMD Archives

Atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib, happens when your normal heartbeat or rhythm is thrown off. Yes, it can be dangerous. Your heart may not be able to pump enough blood.

On the other hand, millions of people with long-lasting AFib live quite well, says Gordon F. Tomaselli, MD, chief of the division of cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "It's very possible to live a normal life for many years."

So let's clear up those ideas that may be limiting you when they don't have to.

Myth: People with AFib shouldn't drive.

"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 get behind the wheel.

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

"That's false," says 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.

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 will give you AFib.

Some people's heart rhythms do change after having cold drinks or eating ice cream, Wu says. But it doesn't necessarily mean you can't eat your favorite ice cream or put ice in your glass.

Your food pipe, or esophagus, runs right behind the top part of your heart. And that's where AFib shows up. If your esophagus is sensitive to cold, it might affect your heart and cause an irregular heartbeat.

It's not a problem for many people with AFib. Even for those who are bothered, it won't be a trigger every time, Tomaselli says.

Myth: Only older people develop atrial fibrillation.

It can happen in anyone at any age, but it is more likely the older we get. Many people with AFib are diagnosed between the ages of 50 and 65.

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Myth: You would know if you had it.

About 15% of people who have AFib have no symptoms before their diagnosis. "A patient might come in for a routine physical," Wu says, "and their doctor notices there is an irregularity."

Other people 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.

Myth: If you have sleep apnea, you'll get AFib.

It's sort of true: For some people, sleep apnea will trigger an episode. But many people with sleep apnea don't have AFib.

If you do have both conditions, treat them both.

Myth: The biggest danger from AFib is a heart attack.

The most feared complication is stroke. Your chance of having one is five times higher if you have AFib. That's because your blood may not flow well and even pool in places like your heart, which makes it easier for clots to form. A clot that gets stuck in a blood vessel in your brain can cause a stroke.

You'll be less likely to have a stroke if you take your AFib medication correctly. Doctors usually prescribe drugs called blood thinners that make your blood less "sticky." Other medicines help control your heartbeats so your blood keeps moving.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on November 04, 2013

Sources

SOURCES:

Gordon F. Tomaselli, MD; director, division of cardiology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; past president, American Heart Association, Baltimore.

Richard Wu, MD, professor of internal medicine; director, Cardiac Electrophysiology Lab, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas.

American Heart Association: "FAQs of Atrial Fibrillation," "What is Atrial Fibrillation?"

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