Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Atrial fibrillation

5-minute read

If you have chest pain that lasts for more than a few minutes, or any other heart attack warning signs, call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance.

Key facts

  • Atrial fibrillation is a type of abnormal heartbeat.
  • It is sometimes known as Afib or AF.
  • Having atrial fibrillation can increase your risk of stroke.
  • There are several treatments for atrial fibrillation, including medicines or a pacemaker.

What is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is a type of heart arrhythmia (abnormal heartbeat). Atrial fibrillation is when your atria (the upper chambers of your heart) twitch or 'fibrillate' rather than pump normally.

When you have atrial fibrillation, your heartbeat may be fast and not regular. This is because there is a problem with the electrical pathways that control your heart rhythm.

Atrial fibrillation is also known as AF or AFib.

Atrial fibrillation can:

  • happen as a one-off episode
  • come and go
  • persist over time

Paroxysmal atrial fibrillation is when atrial fibrillation starts and stops suddenly.

Atrial flutter is another heart rhythm problem that is a lot like atrial fibrillation. However, if you have atrial flutter your heart will beat in a fast, but regular way.

What are the symptoms of atrial fibrillation?

Some people with atrial fibrillation have no symptoms. Others may:

  • have breathing problems
  • feel dizzy or lightheaded
  • have heart palpitations (this may feel like your heart is racing or beating too fast)
  • feel weak or tired
  • have chest pain or discomfort
  • have difficulty exercising

If your heart is in atrial fibrillation, your pulse will be irregular.

What causes atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is the most common kind of heart arrhythmia. It can run in families and gets more common as you get older.

You are more likely to develop atrial fibrillation if you:

A less common cause is hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland).

If you have major surgery or a serious infection, this could trigger an episode of atrial fibrillation.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have symptoms that may be atrial fibrillation, it's important to see your doctor. Atrial fibrillation can have serious consequences.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is atrial fibrillation diagnosed?

If you have symptoms of atrial fibrillation, your doctor will talk with you and examine you.

Atrial fibrillation is usually diagnosed using an electrocardiogram, or ECG.

Your doctor may order other tests such as:

  • a 24-hour heart monitor (called a Holter monitor)
  • an echocardiogram (heart ultrasound)

You might also need some blood tests.

How is atrial fibrillation treated?

Treatment for AF will depend on your symptoms, the cause and what other health conditions you have.

There are several treatments for atrial fibrillation:

  • Medicines to help your heart go back to a normal rhythm or to slow your heart rate.
  • Cardioversion — an electrical shock is given to your heart to reset normal rhythm. This is done under general anaesthetic.
  • Catheter ablation — this procedure destroys (ablates) the area inside the heart that is causing the abnormal rhythm.
  • Pacemaker — a small implanted device that stimulates the heart to beat regularly.

Medicines to prevent a stroke are also usually recommended — see Complications below.

Long-term management of atrial fibrillation

If you have atrial fibrillation, you can help by avoiding triggers and looking after your heart. Take all your medicines as prescribed, look after your general health, and visit your doctor regularly.

Try to follow a healthy lifestyle by:

Complications of atrial fibrillation?

There can be serious complications of atrial fibrillation.

When the electrical pathways in the heart are not working well, your heart can't pump blood smoothly. This increases the chance of a blood clot forming in the heart. If a blood clot forms and travels to the brain, it can cause a stroke.

Medicines to prevent stroke are usually recommended for people with atrial fibrillation. These medicines work by reducing the risk of blood clotting.

Resources and Support

Visit the Heart Foundation for patient resources and support.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2023

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation is one of a number of disorders commonly referred to as arrhythmias, where your heart does not beat normally.

Read more on WA Health website

What is atrial fibrillation? | Heart Foundation

Atrial fibrillation is a type of arrhythmia where your heart beats irregularly and fast.

Read more on Heart Foundation website

Heart conditions - atrial fibrillation - Better Health Channel

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a type of arrhythmia, which means that the heart beats fast and abnormally.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Atrial fibrillation -

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a common type of heart rhythm disorder. It is characterised by a rapid and irregular heartbeat and can increase the risk of stroke.

Read more on myDr website

Cardiac arrest and defibrillators: A guide for consumers - Cardiac arrest

Anyone can try to save the life of someone who has experienced a cardiac arrest by acting quickly to restore the heart beat with CPR and defibrillation.

Read more on NSW Health website

Arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms)

Arrhythmia is when you have an abnormal heart rhythm and heart palpitations are an awareness of your heartbeat.

Read more on WA Health website

Heart arrhythmias and palpitations - Better Health Channel

A heart that beats irregularly, too fast or too slow, is experiencing an arrhythmia.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Heartbeat -

The heartbeat is usually a regular rhythm, but when disturbed it becomes irregular and is felt as palpitations. Find out about extra beats and arrhythmias and when to visit the doctor.

Read more on myDr website

Palpitations: symptoms and diagnosis -

Palpitations are sensations of excessively strong and/or irregular heartbeats. Find out more about the causes and treatment for palpitations.

Read more on myDr website


Cardiomyopathy is a condition in which your heart muscle becomes inflamed and enlarged. Because it is enlarged, your heart muscle is stretched and becomes weak. This means it can’t pump blood as fast as it should.

Read more on WA Health website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Queensland Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.