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What to Know About Screening for Atrial Fibrillation

What to Know About Screening for Atrial Fibrillation

This article is for people who have or might have atrial fibrillation (AF) and anyone who wants to learn more about it. The goal of this activity is to help you talk to and work with your doctor about the different ways to screen for AF.

You will learn about:

  • What AF is and who can get it

  • What can cause AF

  • How AF can impact your health

  • Tools used to screen for AF

  • How AF can be managed  

Test Your Knowledge

About Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation, sometimes called "AFib," is a common type of arrhythmia, which is an irregular heart rhythm. It means that the electrical signals in your heart aren't working correctly -- which can affect how your heart beats and how your blood flows. And when blood doesn't flow through the heart like it normally would, blood clots can form.

There are different types of arrhythmias. But when you have AF, it can increase your risk or chance of a blood clot traveling from your heart to other parts of your body.

Different Things Can Cause AF

AF can be caused by triggers and risk factors. Triggers can include stress, smoking, or drinking too much caffeine or alcohol.

Risk factors are related to your genetics or overall health and can include age above 65 years, being male, your race or ethnicity, and having health conditions such as:

  • Diabetes

  • High blood pressure

  • Obesity or overweight

  • Sleep apnea, where your breathing stops and starts while you sleep

  • Heart or kidney disease

  • Heart failure

  • Previous heart attack or stroke

  • Thyroid disease

AF Can Impact Your Health

Having AF can lead to other health-related problems such as:

  • Stroke, when a blood clot travels to the brain

  • Heart failure

  • Heart disease

  • Difficulty doing daily activities

  • Dementia, a decline in brain function

  • Depression

  • Having to go to the hospital

  • Death

AF Should Be Screened

You might have symptoms such as palpitations where it feels like your heart is beating really fast or you might feel tired, dizzy, or short of breath. Or you might not have any symptoms at all, which is why it is important to be screened for AF.

There are different tools that can help screen for AF and monitor your heart rhythm. The type of tool that your doctor recommends will be based on your symptoms, how long they last, and how severe they are. If you don't have symptoms, it will be based on your overall health and risk factors. Ask your doctor about which screening tool they recommend for you.

Tools Used to Screen AF

At the doctor's office or hospital, AF can be screened with a:

  • Blood pressure monitor: Low blood pressure tells your doctor that blood is not flowing through your body normally, which could be because of AF or a blood clot

  • Stethoscope: A tool used to listen to your heart rhythm

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG): Is the most reliable tool to screen for and diagnose AF. Small electrodes that are placed on the chest transmit electrical signals from the heart to an ECG machine. An ECG can give information about the heart's rhythm and activity for up to 30 seconds

  • Telemetry: Is a type of portable ECG that measures heart rhythm nonstop and can be monitored by the healthcare team while you're in the hospital

A person having an ECG to confirm if he has AF.

Tools Used to Screen AF (cont)

These devices work like an ECG and can measure heart rhythm nonstop for a longer period of time while you're at home:

  • Holter monitor is a small, portable device that can measure heart rhythm for up to 1 month

  • Wearable devices are worn on the body as a small patch on your chest, a garment under your clothes, or a belt that you wear around the waist. Some can measure heart rhythm for up to 1 month and come with features like real-time alerts that can notify a call center if you're having AF

  • Insertable cardiac monitor (ICM) is a small device that is placed under your skin close to your heart and can measure your heart rhythm for 1 year or more. With ICM, your doctor can also keep track from the office

A person using a wearable device, a patch, to monitor heart rhythm.

Tools Used to Screen AF (cont)

Some smartwatches, smartphones, or digital health apps and devices can also measure heart rhythm. The information collected can be helpful but is not the most reliable, because there will be times when the device is not with you, like when you're in the shower.

To truly know if you have AF, you should use a device that measures heart rhythm nonstop like the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-regulated ECG, Holter monitor, wearable technology, or ICM. And if you do get a notification about your heart from a device or app, always check with your doctor.

How AF Can Be Managed

You can work together with your doctor and decide on how to manage your AF using 1 or more of the following options:

  • A healthy lifestyle includes a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding triggers, and managing your other health conditions

  • Procedures can help reset your heart back to normal rhythm. With cardioversion, small electric shocks are sent to your heart through electrodes applied on your chest. With ablation, radiofrequency waves heat small areas of heart tissue to improve the way electrical signals move through the heart

  • Medicines like anticoagulants help prevent blood clots from forming, which can then help prevent a stroke. They may cause bleeding. Antiarrhythmic drugs can help control your heart rhythm and can also have side effects

A person with AF undergoing cardioversion to reset the heart back to normal rhythm.

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View Additional Materials on this topic that you may find useful:

Atrial Fibrillation



Authors and Disclosures

Clinician Reviewer

Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh

Associate Director, Content Development, Medscape, LLC. Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh, has no relevant financial relationships.


Asha P. Gupta, PharmD, RPh

Medical Education Director, Medscape, LLC. Asha P. Gupta, PharmD, RPh, has no relevant financial relationships.


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