Which Type of Atrial Fibrillation Do You Have?

Atrial fibrillation, also called AFib, is a common heart condition. AFib doesn’t so much have types as it has durations. Doctors classify it by how long it lasts, or what causes it. Yours could change over time. Your treatment will depend on which you have.

Paroxysmal Atrial Fibrillation

This is an episode of atrial fibrillation that lasts less than a week. You might feel it happening for a few minutes or for several days. You may not need treatment with this type of AFib, but you should see a doctor.

You could hear it nicknamed “holiday heart syndrome.” This refers to AFib that follows a bout of heavy drinking. If your heart isn’t used to all this different activity, it may go into AFib. It also happens sometimes when you’re under extreme stress.

Persistent Atrial Fibrillation

Usually, this lasts longer than a week. It could stop on its own, or you may need medicine or treatment to stop it. Persistent AFib usually starts as short-term AFib (paroxysmal AFib)

You’re more likely to get persistent AFib if you’re:

Doctors can use medicine to treat this type of AFib. If that doesn’t work, they might use a low-voltage current to reset your heart’s rhythm to normal. It’s called electrical cardioversion. Doctors usually do this procedure in a hospital while you’re sedated, so you won’t feel anything. You can go home after it’s done, but someone else will have to drive you.

Long-Standing Persistent Atrial Fibrillation

This means your AFib has lasted for more than a year and doesn’t go away. Medicine and treatment like electrical cardioversion may not stop the AFib. Doctors can use another kind of treatment, such as ablation (which burns certain areas of your heart’s electrical system) to restore your normal heart rhythm.

Permanent (Chronic) Atrial Fibrillation

This can’t be corrected by treatments. If you have this type, you and your doctor will decide if you need long-term medication to control your heart rate and lower your odds of having a stroke.

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Valvular and Nonvalvular Atrial Fibrillation

Both valvular and nonvalvular AFib can cause blood to pool in your heart, which raises your risk of complications like blood clots and strokes. Your doctor will prescribe a type of medicine to help lower your odds of stroke.

Valvular Atrial Fibrillation

A heart valve problem brings this on. It could be an artificial heart valve, valvular stenosis (when one of your heart valves stiffens), or regurgitation (a valve isn’t closing properly, which lets some blood flow the wrong way).Your chance of getting valvular AFib rises if you have mitral valve disease or artificial heart valves.

Nonvalvular Atrial Fibrillation

This is atrial fibrillation that isn’t caused by a problem with a heart valve. It’s caused by other things, such as high blood pressure or an overactive thyroid gland. Doctors don’t always know what the cause is.

You're more likely to get nonvalvular AFib if you:

  • Are older
  • Have had high blood pressure for many years
  • Have heart disease
  • Drink large amounts of alcohol
  • Have a family member with AFib
  • Have sleep apnea

Acute Onset Atrial Fibrillation

This rapid, chaotic heartbeat comes on quickly and goes away quickly. It usually resolves itself in 24 to 48 hours. Causes include age, cardiovascular disease, alcohol abuse, diabetes, and lung disease.

Postoperative Atrial Fibrillation

This is the most frequent complication of cardiovascular surgery. It boosts your odds of heart failure and cerebral infarction, a brain injury that results from a blood clot blocking blood flow in your brain.

Doctors have many ways to treat atrial fibrillation, no matter which type you have. If you have symptoms, see your doctor to discuss what will be best for you.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on October 27, 2020

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