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Is atrial fibrillation (AFib) life threatening?

Atrial fibrillation isn’t necessarily dangerous, but if ignored, it can put someone at risk for stroke. In addition to causing symptoms such as weakness or tiredness, if heart rate is not controlled, atrial fibrillation can also make the heart weak, which is called cardiomyopathy.

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) may be life-threatening, but it all depends on the circumstances and the patient.

Dr. Mohamed Djelmami Hani, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Atrial fibrillation (AF) causes your heart to beat irregularly and can cause your pulse to race or be very slow. Sometimes this interferes with the normal circulation of blood to your head, body and heart muscle. It can cause the work of your heart to increase.

However, not all people feel symptoms when they experience AF. About one person in five has no symptoms. For some, the symptoms may be mild, while others may have uncomfortable, severe or even frightening symptoms.

Atrial fibrillation is usually not immediately life-threatening. However, it can lead to problems such as stroke and heart failure. Studies have shown that people with AF carry a 1-1⁄2 to 2 times greater risk of death compared to those who do not have AF.

Dr. Douglas E. Severance, MD
Family Practitioner

If left untreated, atrial fibrillation increases the chance of having a stroke or a serious heart condition. A stroke is a sudden "brain attack" that often causes weakness or paralysis of the face or in a hand, arm, foot, or leg. With a stroke, you can have difficulty speaking, loss of feeling in an arm or leg, loss of consciousness, loss of vision, unsteadiness, and other serious problems. Strokes can quickly disable a person.

If your heart rhythm is extremely fast, atrial fibrillation can put you at risk for heart failure. Heart failure can come on gradually, with slowly increasing shortness of breath, especially with physical activity and exertion. Swelling from excess fluid, or edema, in the legs may gradually worsen and spread to the abdomen. Weakness, nausea, and other symptoms may result from heart failure. Treating the atrial fibrillation may prevent these serious problems from happening.

You’ve probably heard heart disease described as a “ticking time bomb.” Well, it really is. There are two major complications associated with atrial fibrillation: stroke and heart failure. Neither is nice. Since the heart beats too rapidly and out of sync, blood can pool inside the atria (the top chambers in your heart). This pooled blood can turn into a clot, which can sneak away and make a beeline for the brain, causing a stroke. Heart failure occurs because your heart fails to pump enough blood out to the rest of your body. Less blood means less oxygen, so you can experience serious shortness of breath, fatigue, and even fluid buildup in your lungs and extremities. The good news: Your doc has meds and lifestyle suggestions that can keep the potential dangers of “a-fib” at bay, and can usually prevent complications even if you develop a-fib.

While atrial fibrillation (AFib) itself is not life threatening, it is associated with conditions that are.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.