Atrial fibrillation: What triggers an A-fib attack?
Though there are many treatments available, a person can take more control over A-fib by knowing and avoiding common A-fib triggers.
An A-fib flare may be caused by travel. People with A-fib should stay hydrated and have enough sleep when traveling.
As with many medical conditions, certain situations and factors can contribute to attacks or flares. Here are some potential triggers that may cause A-fib to flare in people:
- Travel. Taking a trip can cause an A-fib attack due to a person becoming overtired, the stress of travel, and changes in sleep patterns - all of which can trigger the fight-or-flight response. When traveling, people with A-fib should be sure to get enough sleep, stay hydrated, and not skip meals.
- Medical procedures. Heart surgery is often associated with an A-fib attack. Any surgery that causes stress in a person can also trigger an attack. A patient with A-fib should let their doctor know before undergoing any medical procedure, even a minor one.
- Exercise. Low or moderate intensity exercise is generally considered good for a person with A-fib. However, a sudden increase in exercise or a workout that is too intense can trigger an A-fib attack. Getting overheated or dehydrated while exercising can also trigger attacks.
- Holidays. Holidays offer many triggers, including stress, fatigue, and alcohol use. Any one of these alone can be a trigger but when combined, they create a much higher risk of an A-fib attack.
- Alcohol. People with A-fib should significantly reduce their alcohol intake. Although there is no recommendation that works for all people, minimal to moderate consumption is usually best. Alcohol consumption has an especially irritating effect on the heart, and binge drinking is a major A-fib trigger.
- Stress. Stress is a very common trigger for A-fib. For this reason, people with A-fib need to be able to identify personal stressors and take steps to avoid or reduce them. If they can't rule out all causes of stress, practicing stress-reduction techniques, such as yoga, deep breathing, Tai chi, or autogenic practices, can lessen the impact.
- Fatigue. Extreme fatigue can trigger an A-fib attack because it puts stress on a person's body. Sleep deprivation or physical exhaustion can both play a role in triggering an A-fib attack.
- Air pollution. A-fib attacks may have a link with air pollution. People living in areas with high levels of air pollution have been shown to have increased attacks of A-fib compared to others living in less polluted areas. In these cases, the problem appears to be the very fine particles of pollution released from cars and power plants. These particles move deep into the lungs and trigger attacks.
- Dehydration. Lack of electrolytes in the blood associated with dehydration, especially potassium, can trigger A-fib symptoms. Dehydration occurs during exercise, hot weather, and illness that causes vomiting or diarrhea.
- Caffeine. Traditionally, doctors have considered caffeine consumption from drinks, such as coffee, tea, and soda as a trigger for A-fib. However, more recent evidence suggests that A-fib might not be triggered by caffeine intake. Doctors are likely to suggest that people with A-fib avoid caffeine or drink it in moderation until there is more proof that caffeine has no ill effects on A-fib.
- Over-the-counter drugs. Over-the-counter cold, flu, and cough medications can trigger A-fib attacks because these medications stimulate the heart.
- Recreational drugs. Marijuana can stimulate the heart through raising the heart rate by a significant percent for several hours. Other drugs such as cocaine can also trigger an abnormal heartbeat. Abusing cough or cold medication for recreational use can also trigger an A-fib attack.
Tips for avoiding triggers
Avoiding an A-fib attack will largely depend on the individual. What works for one person with A-fib may not work for another. Equally, what might trigger A-fib attacks in one person may not have the same effect in another.
In general, a person with A-fib should do the following to reduce attacks:
- avoid or reduce stress
- take part in well-monitored, light exercise
- get plenty of rest
- stay hydrated
- avoid things that have caused an A-fib reaction in the past
Some lifestyle changes that may help to avoid an A-fib attack include maintaining a healthy weight and taking part in moderate exercise.
Avoiding A-fib attacks is not always easy. Often the best method to avoid A-fib attacks is to make some lifestyle changes.
Some lifestyle changes that may help can include:
- taking part in moderate exercise a few times a week
- increasing the number of hours spent sleeping
- decreasing or avoiding stressful situations
- avoiding alcohol or drinking only in moderation
- quitting smoking
- eating heart-healthy meals and snacks
- maintaining a healthy weight
- following a doctor's recommendations and taking prescribed medications
In general, following a healthful lifestyle can help a person avoid an A-fib attack. Improving overall health should help most people avoid signs and symptoms of the condition.
A-fib is commonly caused by changes or damage to the heart's structure. Possible causes of A-fib include:
- heart attacks
- viral infections
- high blood pressure
- lung diseases
- coronary artery disease
- abnormal heart valves
- heart defects
- overactive thyroid gland
- certain medications
- caffeine, tobacco, or alcohol
- the heart's natural pacemaker not working properly
- previous heart surgery
- sleep apnea
Though these are common causes of A-fib, some people have A-fib without any heart defects or damage. This condition is called lone atrial fibrillation. The cause of lone atrial fibrillation is not always clear. However, serious complications for this condition are rare.