When Someone With AFib Has an Episode

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on June 04, 2022

Most episodes of atrial fibrillation aren't life-threatening, but an irregular heartbeat can cause complications like a heart attack or stroke. When you're prepared to spot and handle what's going on, you can help your loved one get the medical care they need faster, and ease your worries, too.

To get started, make a list of their health conditions and the medications they take. That way, you can share the list with medical professionals during any emergency. If your loved one takes blood thinners, they should wear a medical bracelet or tag saying so.

You'll also want to know what happens during an AFib episode, heart attack, and stroke, and the different warning signs of each.

AFib Episode

What it is: When the heart beats irregularly, causing it to flutter, race, pound, or noticeably skip beats, that may be an AFib episode.

The symptoms: Your loved one may be very tired and short of breath. They may feel faint, anxious, or confused. And they may notice that their heart is fluttering or pounding.

How to help: Call a doctor. AFib episodes rarely cause serious problems, but they'll need to get checked out.

If they're uncomfortable or their heart is beating rapidly, call 911 or go to an emergency room. Doctors may use medications or a device called a cardioverter to help their heart go back to a normal rhythm.

Heart Attack

What it is: A heart attack can happen when blood doesn't flow to the organ like it should because of a blockage. This can damage its tissue and could be deadly.

The symptoms: The main ones are discomfort, pain, pressure, or heaviness in the chest. A heart attack can also cause shortness of breath, nausea, confusion, and exhaustion.

Important: Women don't always have "typical" symptoms. They may vomit or feel tingling or pain in their back, shoulders, arm, or jaw.

How to help: If they have these warning signs, call 911 right away, even if you're not sure it's a heart attack. It's better to be wrong than to wait too long.

The 911 operator will stay on the phone with you until help arrives. Tell them that the person has AFib. They may give you specific instructions for while you wait.


What it is: A stroke can happen when a blood clot travels to the brain. It's the biggest risk with AFib. Your loved one is five times more likely to have a stroke than other people.

The symptoms: Remember the initials F.A.S.T.

  • Face drooping
  • Arm weakness
  • Speech difficulty
  • Time to call 911

Stroke can also bring on a severe headache, vision problems, dizziness, confusion, trouble speaking, or numbness or weakness on one side of the body.

How to help: Call 911. Don't wait to see if the symptoms go away on their own. The sooner they get medical treatment, the better.

Try to help them lie down. Don't give them aspirin. Pay close attention to their symptoms until help arrives.

Show Sources


AFib Matters: "About Atrial Fibrillation."

American Heart Association: "Aspirin and Heart Disease."

American Heart Association/American Stroke Association: "FAQs of Atrial Fibrillation" (AFib or AF)," "Learn More Stroke Warning Signs and Symptoms."

British Heart Foundation: "Heart Attack."

Harvard Medical School: "Aspirin For Heart Attack."

Legacy Health: "Stroke FAQ."

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Know Stroke. Know the Signs. Act in Time."

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Don't Take a Chance with a Heart Attack," "What Are The Signs and Symptoms of Atrial Fibrillation?"

St. Joseph's Hospital Heart Institute Advanced Center for Atrial Fibrillation: "Atrial Fibrillation: Frequently Asked Questions." "How To Know It's Atrial Fibrillation."

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