Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is an irregular heart rhythm that affects almost 3 million Americans. It’s caused by a faulty electrical signal in your heart.

In the human body, an electrical circuit is responsible for controlling and monitoring many bodily functions. If these electrical signals misfire or don’t work correctly, you may begin experiencing signs and symptoms that indicate a problem.

In the case of AFib, this electrical problem causes the heart to beat irregularly.

Symptoms of AFib include lightheadedness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain, and weakness. AFib can also occur without any symptoms. It’s possible the condition can be undetected and undiagnosed.

If not identified and treated correctly, AFib can increase your risk for blood clots. If these blood clots aren’t detected and treated or removed, they could travel through your body to your brain. There, they can cause a stroke. Strokes can be debilitating, even life-threatening.

AFib treatments range from blood-thinning medications to surgeries that may destroy tissue causing the abnormal rhythm. The most common type of treatment is an anticoagulant. This medicine is designed to thin your blood and reduce your risk of blood clots.

To reduce your risk of clots and strokes, your doctor may prescribe anticoagulants. Anticoagulants come with a possible side effects and complications. You need to be monitored regularly while you’re using them.

If the dose is too small, you have an increased risk of stroke. If the dose is too high, your blood will be too thin. This increases your risk for excess bleeding if you’re injured.

Three categories for blood-thinning medications are currently used. The type of medication your doctor prescribes will determine how frequently you should be tested.

Aspirin

Aspirin can be used to reduce your blood-clot risk. Aspirin — and medications similar to it — belong to a class of medications called antiplatelets. Antiplatelet medications help prevent blood clots from forming.

Since aspirin is available over-the-counter, doctors may first recommend it to patients as a preventative measure. However, don’t begin taking aspirin without talking to your doctor first.

New Anticoagulants

Newer and safer prescription blood-thinning medications are now the recommended treatment for if you live with AFib. These include:

  • dabigatran (Pradaxa)
  • rivaroxaban (Xarelto)
  • apixaban (Eliquis)
  • edoxaban (Savaysa)

They don’t carry the same bleeding risk as warfarin, an older medication. You don’t need frequent monitoring if you use one of these medications to control your clot risk. That doesn’t mean that they’re not powerful medications.

To prevent dangerous side effects, these medicines should be taken exactly as your doctor prescribes.

Warfarin

Warfarin (Coumadin and Jantoven) has been used for decades to prevent blood clotting. It was traditionally prescribed to prevent strokes in people with AFib. However, new guidelines recommend using newer blood-thinning medications instead.

Warfarin is a very powerful medicine. If you use it, you’re at an increased risk of dangerous bleeding. It requires careful monitoring with frequent blood tests.

Blood-thinning medications are used to keep the blood’s clotting ability at a healthy level. If your blood clots too much, the medication isn’t working. If the blood clots too little, you’re at risk for a dangerous bleeding problem.

To make sure your clotting level is safe, your doctor will want to have your blood drawn regularly to check its clotting ability. Based on the results, you may need to take more or less of your medication to maintain a clotting balance.

If you’ve been diagnosed with AFib, talk with your doctor. It’s important to understand the risks of taking AFib medications and the testing requirements.

For some people, the constant monitoring is too consuming and difficult to handle. For others, it’s a minor inconvenience to help control a larger problem.

Together with your doctor, you can find a treatment solution that helps you control your AFib, allowing you to lead a healthy, normal life.