Signs and Symptoms of a Stroke and What to Do In an Emergency

A stroke is a “brain attack” that can happen to anyone. According to the American Stroke Association (ASA), about 795,000 Americans suffer a new or recurrent stroke each year. That means, on average, a stroke occurs every 40 seconds. Stroke is also the number one cause of serious long-term disability in the U.S., and the number five cause of death.

Acting fast in a stroke emergency is crucial – it can take only four minutes for brain cells to start drying. The sooner you call 911, the better chance a person has of surviving and recovering from a stroke.

That’s why it’s so important for everyone to understand the signs and symptoms of a stroke and what to do in a stroke emergency.

What’s a Stroke?

A stroke (or “cerebrovascular accident”) happens when a blood vessel in the brain gets blocked by a blood clot or a rupture. The flow of oxygen to that part of the brain is cut off, causing brain cells to start dying. Fast treatment is critical to prevent more damage to the brain – some damage can be irreversible.

A person can also have a “mini stroke” called a transient ischemic attack (TIA). The most common cause of a TIA is hypertension (high blood pressure). Although the blood flow blockage is temporary, TIAs still need immediate medical attention. People who suffer from a TIA can often experience a stroke in the near future. Getting medical care is important to help identify what caused the TIA, treat that cause, and take the necessary steps to prevent a stroke from happening in the future.

Signs and Symptoms of a Stroke

“Sudden” is the key word to stroke signs, says the ASA. They happen quickly and out of the blue. Someone who is having a stroke might experience:

  • Numbness or weakness, especially on one side of the body (face, arm, or leg)
  • Confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Difficulty walking, dizziness, or loss of balance
  • Severe headache with no known cause

Remember B.E. F.A.S.T. to Help You Identify a Stroke

Every second counts in an emergency and acting F.A.S.T. can save lives. Remember the acronym F.A.S.T. to help you learn and be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of a stroke:

– Balance. Does the person have a sudden loss of balance or coordination?

– Eyes. Ask the person if their vision is blurred. Do they have double vision or sudden trouble seeing out of one or both eyes?

F – Face drooping. Ask the person to smile. Does one side of their face droop?

A – Arm weakness. Ask the person to raise both of their arms. Does on arm drift downward?

S – Speech difficulty. Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or mumbled?

T – Terrible headache. Ask them if their head hurts. Do they have a sudden onset of a terrible headache or "the worst headache of their life?"


If the person shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 911 and get the person to the hospital immediately. Note the time when you started seeing symptoms and tell the medical personnel.

Ask the emergency personnel to take the affected person to a certified stroke center if there’s one in the area. They’ll be most up-to-date on the best ways to help the person.

Preventing Strokes

Some risk factors are out of your control, like being over the age of 65 or being a woman. (Read about women and stroke here.) But there are many things that you can do to prevent a stroke from happening:

  • Stop smoking now. It affects your cholesterol levels and introduces toxic chemicals into your system. For example, the carbon monoxide from cigarettes sticks to red blood cells and reduces the oxygen that should go to the heart, brain, and other tissues.
  • Pick your favorite aerobic exercises and do them for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. An aerobic activity is one that gets your heart pumping: brisk walking, dancing, swimming, and running are examples. If it’s been a long time since you last exercised, start slow and read these 4 steps to help you get back in shape the way.
  • Limit the amount of alcohol you’re drinking to no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. Alcohol can change heart rhythms, induce blood clots; reduce blood flow, increase blood pressure, and more.

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The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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