Stroke is a leading cause of death and disability in the United States, particularly for females. But early medical care may change the outcome and also prevent complications associated with surviving a stroke.

A stroke occurs when the blood supply to a part of the brain is reduced or stopped. Without oxygen-rich blood, neurons start to die and the brain may not be able to perform vital functions. The longer the interruption in blood flow, the greater the damage and risks.

Medical emergency

A stroke is a medical emergency. If you think you or someone else is having a stroke, call 911 or your local emergency services immediately.

The FAST method may help identify early signs:

  • Face: Drooping eyelid or corner of the mouth.
  • Arm: One arm (or leg) is weaker than the other one or can’t be lifted as high.
  • Speech: Words are slurred, and comprehension of what others say is reduced.
  • Time: If any of these is true, immediate care is essential.

Read more about the signs and symptoms of a stroke.

While strokes are a leading cause of death, not all strokes are fatal. The outcome often depends on:

  • the affected region of the brain
  • the duration of the blood flow interruption
  • how soon you receive medical treatment

Stroke damage occurs when the blood supply isn’t restored quickly. Delayed treatment may increase the chance of this happening.

Surviving a stroke is less likely when a large area of the brain is affected. A stroke in the brainstem is also more likely to be fatal.

A massive stroke may also affect multiple areas of the brain and has a higher chance of fatality.

Learn more about massive strokes.

Early medical care – within 3 hours of the first symptom – increases the chance of surviving a stroke and may prevent stroke complications like:

Read more about the effects of a stroke on the body.

In general, people who have strokes while asleep may have an increased chance of complications, including death, because treatment is often delayed. The longer a stroke goes untreated, the more chance it has to cause severe brain damage.

It’s estimated that 20% of ischemic strokes happen during sleep. You may wake up with symptoms of a stroke but not know exactly when during the night it first started.

It’s still essential to seek urgent care as soon as you notice any stroke signs.

Learn about the potential warning signs of a stroke.

Strokes are classified into three main categories and each may carry a different risk of fatality:

Ischemic strokes

An ischemic stroke is the most common type and has a high chance of complications, including death, if not treated promptly.

Ischemic strokes are caused by a blockage in an artery supplying a region of the brain with blood. These types of strokes include thrombotic and embolic strokes.

  • Thrombotic stroke: This type of stroke involves a blood clot forming within the blood vessels inside the brain. It is more common in older adults and is associated with high cholesterol or diabetes. Thrombotic strokes can occur suddenly or gradually over hours or days.
  • Embolic stroke: It involves a blood clot forming in a blood vessel outside of the brain. The clot travels to a blood vessel in the brain, causing the blockage there. These strokes are often due to heart disease and can occur suddenly.

Hemorrhagic strokes

With this type of stroke, a blood vessel in the brain ruptures or leaks. Hemorrhagic strokes can be caused by high blood pressure or an aneurysm.

Hemorrhagic strokes carry the highest chance of complications and death.

Two types of hemorrhagic strokes are:

  • Intracerebral: It is caused by a ruptured artery in the brain.
  • Subarachnoid: It involves a rupture or leak that causes bleeding in the space between the brain and the tissue that covers the brain.

Read more about the differences between an ischemic and a hemorrhagic stroke.

Transient ischemic attack (TIA)

Also called a ministroke, a TIA is a temporary interruption of blood flow to a part of the brain. The interruption is brief because the blood clot dissolves quickly on its own. TIAs have a minimal risk of death and complications.

TIAs cause traditional stroke-like symptoms, but symptoms typically disappear within 24 hours and don’t cause permanent brain damage.

Having a TIA increases the risk of an ischemic or hemorrhagic stroke, however. This is why TIAs should be treated as a medical emergency even if symptoms disappear quickly.

Read more about TIAs vs. strokes.

The goal of acute stroke treatment is to restore blood flow to the brain and control any bleeding in the brain. Getting urgent care within 3 hours of the first symptom may significantly reduce the chance of stroke complications and death.

Learn all about treatments for stroke.

You may receive a brain scan upon arrival at the hospital to determine the type of stroke.

Medication may help dissolve a clot and restore blood flow if you arrive at the hospital shortly after the onset of an ischemic stroke.

Surgery may remove a blood clot that doesn’t dissolve or help remove plaque in a blocked artery.

If you have a hemorrhagic stroke, surgery can repair a weak or damaged blood vessel, remove blood from the brain, and reduce pressure in the brain.

After you’re stabilized, treatment involves rehabilitation. Depending on the severity of brain damage, you may need occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy to help you regain lost abilities.

Learn more about stroke recovery.

Stroke is a leading cause of death and disability, but not all strokes are fatal. Knowing how to recognize the early signs so that you can receive prompt treatment is essential. Getting care within 3 hours of a stroke greatly improves the outcome and may prevent many complications.