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What Are the Triggers for Atrial Fibrillation?

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  • What Is Atrial Fibrillation?

    What Is Atrial Fibrillation?

    Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is a medical disorder that primarily affects the upper chambers, or atria, of the heart. People who have AFib experience intermittent irregular heartbeats caused by abnormal electrical signals in the heart. The electrical impulses may erroneously circulate through the heart, causing the atria to contract in an irregular pattern, making your heart beat too quickly, too slowly, or in an uneven rhythm. Many people who have AFib suffer from episodes brought on by a specific trigger. Recognizing triggers and avoiding them can help you manage atrial fibrillation effectively. Click through to learn about some of the common triggers for atrial fibrillation.

    See a visual guide of how atrial fibrillation affects the body »

  • Fatigue and Illness

    Fatigue and Illness

    Sleep deprivation, physical illness, and recent surgery are common triggers for AFib. Whenever your body is not running at 100 percent, you’re suffering from physical stress. Stress makes the abnormal electrical activity in your heart more likely to occur. Eating well-balanced meals and getting enough sleep each night, especially when traveling, is crucial for people who have atrial fibrillation.

  • Emotional Triggers

    Emotional Triggers

    Emotions play a role in many bodily functions. When you are upset or sad, you might lose your appetite. Being stressed out can lead to tight muscles and soreness. Fright, anxiety, or extreme happiness can cause your heart to race or make you feel like you heart has skipped a beat. The range of strong emotions you experience in certain situations can also trigger atrial fibrillation episodes in some people.

  • Hormones


    The normal fluctuation of hormones may trigger atrial fibrillation in women. Stanford University Hospital and Clinics explain that heart arrhythmias—the medical term for an irregular heartbeat—increase in many women with previously diagnosed problems during menstruation. Perimenopausal women are also likely to see an increase in atrial fibrillation around the time that their periods stop.

  • Exercise


    Exercise is a healthy habit for almost everyone to embrace. A 2008 issue of Circulation lists exercise as a positive lifestyle adjustment that helps patients cope with atrial fibrillation. In rare cases, though, an increase in physical exertion can bring on signs of an AFib event.

  • Medication


    If you’ve got AFib, talk to your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medications or dietary supplements. Cold medications and nasal spray decongestants are common culprits for some people with heart arrhythmias. Your doctor can tell you if specific medications are safe for you to use, or suggest suitable alternatives.

  • Alcohol


    Alcohol—including beer, wine, and spirits—triggers atrial fibrillation in many patients. Some people experience symptoms from just a drink or two, while others do not feel adverse effects in a cardiac sense unless heavy drinking is involved. The American Journal of Cardiology reports a possible link between alcohol consumption and vagal tone, and its role in atrial fibrillation. Vagal tone is the level of activity of the vagus nerve, a large nerve in the neck. People that have alcohol triggers of AFib are also more likely to experience increased vagal activity that leads to fibrillation episodes.

  • Caffeine


    The idea of caffeine as a trigger for atrial fibrillation is surrounded by controversy in the medical world. Caffeine is a known stimulant that can invigorate your central nervous system and raise your heart rate. For some people, this can generate an atrial fibrillation event. Recent studies published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggest that caffeine may not be the definitive trigger as previously believed. Female coffee drinkers in the study did not experience an increase in AFib episodes. Each person, however, is different. If you feel that caffeine makes your arrhythmias worse, steer clear of coffee, tea, and caffeinated sodas.

  • Dehydration


    You may have an atrial fibrillation event if you’re dehydrated. A change in fluid levels in your body can affect a number of bodily functions, including heart function. Exhaustion, a change in eating patterns, and physical exertion can bring on dehydration in some situations, compounding the problem. Alcohol and caffeinated drinks also dry you out, increasing your risk even more. Good hydration habits include drinking plenty of water throughout the day, especially in hot weather or when you exercise. Watching your salt intake can also help you avoid dehydration.

  • Outlook


    Although many AFib triggers are common, each person’s experience is unique. It may take a period of “trial and error” to determine what your personal triggers are. Awareness of your condition and of the situations that can potentially provoke an episode, along with medications, play a large role in helping you control symptoms and living a healthy life.