Getting immediate medical care during or following a stroke is critical. Here are 11 ways to tell if someone is having a stroke and what to do.

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One-sided numbness, headache, and slurred speech are common signs of having a stroke. You may know how to spot these signs of stroke in yourself, but what if you’re with another person who may be having a stroke? Early identification is key to getting prompt treatment and having the best possible outcome.

In 2022, the American Heart Associate (AHA) reports that someone has a stroke every 40 seconds in the United States. Here’s how to spot the outward signs of stroke so you can get help as soon as possible.

A stroke is a medical emergency. It happens when the brain does not get the blood or oxygen it needs. Without blood and oxygen, the brain cells die off, resulting in brain damage or death.

There are two types of stroke:

  • Ischemic stroke: The type of stroke happens when a clot blocks the blood flow to the brain.
  • Hemorrhagic stroke: This type of stroke happens when a blood vessel to the brain bursts and the brain doesn’t receive enough blood flow.

Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States. It’s also a leading cause of disability. The good news is that a stroke can be treated when caught early.

A stroke can happen suddenly. Pay close attention if you notice any of the following signs of stroke in another person.

1. Asymmetrical face

A person having a stroke may lose feeling or have weakness in one side of the face/body. Look closely to see if one side of the face looks droopy or for any other obvious signs that one side of the face is not matching the other during activities like talking, chewing, or smiling.

2. Other body numbness

That weakness or loss of feeling may extend to other parts of the body as well. You may notice the person rubbing their arm or leg, hands, or feet. This is likely due to numbness or tingling, and it usually occurs on just one side of the body. The other side may be fully functional, so look for asymmetry with movements as well.

3. Headache

A stroke may cause a severe headache that comes on suddenly. Outward signs of a headache may include:

  • touching the forehead or temples (from pain or pressure)
  • squinting the eyes (from light sensitivity)
  • groaning (from pain)

You may also ask the person if they have a headache after observing these signs.

4. Confusion

Along with a headache, a person may be confused or have fuzzy thinking. They may have trouble finding their words when speaking to you. They may even look dazed or puzzled when you speak to them.

5. Sight issues

A stroke can make it hard to see clearly from one or both eyes. The person may bump into walls, have difficulty grabbing items nearby, or have issues with depth perception. A person who is having trouble seeing may squint or blink or rub their eyes. They may also not be able to read words in front of them.

6. Dizziness

Sudden dizziness is another common stroke symptom. A person who feels dizzy may hold onto the wall or a stationary object to feel grounded. They may look side to side (if the room is spinning) or, alternatively, try to keep their head still. Dizziness may also come in the form of being lightheaded, so a person may ask to sit down or seem woozy.

7. Balance and coordination

A stroke may cause a person to appear clumsy. This comes from balance and coordination issues. You may observe the person stumbling or dropping things. Their lack of coordination may remind you of seeing somebody who is under the influence of alcohol, but the person has not been drinking.

8. Difficulty walking

With dizziness, balance issues, one-sided numbness, and trouble seeing, a person may not be able to walk in their usual way. They may hold onto you or the wall as they try to make their way from point A to point B. Or walking may seem to take great effort, and their steps may not be steady.

9. Trouble talking

Coordination, confusion, and numbness all affect speech as well. You may hear a person slur their words or observe that their voice/speech sounds different from the norm. Try having the person repeat a basic phrase for you (for example: “My name is William.”) and note any difficulty or excessive concentration.

10. Panic

With all these sensations happening without warning, a person may feel panicked. Their breathing may be fast and labored. Their heart rate may rise. Their facial expressions may show they are afraid (wide eyes, raised eyebrows, lips stretched horizontally, or gritting teeth), or they may be sweaty or shaking.

11. Sudden change

Again, there’s a shared characteristic with stroke symptoms — they all come on suddenly. A person may be fine one minute and appear very different the next. Anytime you notice these symptoms — in any combination — that happen suddenly and all at once, it’s time to act F.A.S.T.

Act F.A.S.T. if someone near you is having a stroke

If you observe signs of stroke in another person, act F.A.S.T. to get immediate medical attention.

  • Face: Does one side of the person’s face look droopy?
    To test, ask the person to smile.
  • Arms: Can the person lift both arms and keep them up?
    To test, ask the person to raise both arms to see if one slowly drifts down.
  • Speech: Does the person’s speech sound slurred or strange?
    To test, have the person repeat a simple phrase.
  • Time: If you suspect a stroke, call 911 to get help as soon as possible.

Ischemic strokes are caused by health conditions that may develop with age. The most common of these are:

  • atherosclerosis: Atherosclerosis is a buildup of plaque in the arteries.
  • atrial fibrillation (AFib): AFib is a type of irregular heartbeat that may lead to blood clots. When these blood clots travel to the brain, they may cause a stroke.

Lifestyle factors may also lead to ischemic strokes, such as:

Hemorrhagic strokes are less common than ischemic strokes. They’re primarily caused by hypertension. When pressure builds in the arteries, they’re more likely to burst over time.

Other risk factors for hemorrhagic stroke include:

Treatment for stroke depends on the type:

  • Ischemic stroke: This type of stroke can be treated in the first 3 hours by administering thrombolytic drugs, like tissue plasminogen activator (tPA). Also called “clot-busting” drugs, these medications break up the blood clots that are causing the stroke. Other treatment options for ischemic stroke include blood thinners and surgery.
  • Hemorrhagic stroke: require a treatment — medication or surgery — that will stop the bleeding and preserve brain tissue. Endovascular procedures can repair damaged blood vessels for some hemorrhagic strokes.
  • Ruptured aneurysm: Strokes caused by ruptured aneurysms may involve placing a metal clip on the aneurysm to stop the bleeding.

After initial treatment, people who have had a stroke may need rehabilitation. This process begins usually a couple of days after the stroke and may continue for weeks, months, or sometimes years.

Stroke rehabilitation addresses things like:

  • speech issues
  • movement issues
  • cognition issues
  • eating issues
  • bladder and bowel issues
  • pain or other discomfort/sensations
  • emotional issues

Recovery from stroke is individual and depends on various factors. Some people may make a full recovery. Others may be disabled in the long term or even permanently. And every 3.5 minutes in the United States, somebody dies as a result of a stroke.

In general, stroke must be treated promptly with medication, surgery, or other procedures to prevent extensive brain damage. Even with prompt treatment and rehabilitation, a person can experience mild to severe impairments.

The American Stroke Association shares the following post-stroke recovery statistics:

  • 10% of people recover fully
  • 10% of people need care in a long-term care facility or nursing home
  • 25% of people experience mild disability
  • 40% of people experience moderate to severe disability

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasizes that getting treatment in the first 3 hours after identifying stroke symptoms is key to a more positive outcome. Research shows that people who receive timely medical care have fewer impairments 3 months after having a stroke than people who did not receive care in this critical period.

If I think someone is having a stroke, should I just drive them to the hospital?

No. Experts explain that it’s best to call 911 and have emergency personnel help you in the event of a stroke. Ambulances have critical care tools on board that can start treatment before a person gets to the emergency room.

Do strokes mostly affect older people?

The risk for stroke doubles every 10 years after a person reaches age 55. That said, strokes can happen at any age. In fact, 38% of people who were hospitalized with strokes in 2014 were people under age 65.

Can a person have more than one stroke?

1 in 4 people who have had one stroke will go on to have another one within 5 years. A person may be able to prevent having another stroke by addressing medical issues and lifestyle factors that elevate risk.

How is stroke prevented?

Experts estimate that 4 in 5 strokes are preventable. Work with your doctor to address health issues you have that may be increasing your risk, like:

  • heart disease
  • hypertension
  • high cholesterol
  • AFib
  • diabetes

Otherwise, find support to stop smoking, end alcohol overuse, and start exercising.

If you observe the signs of stroke in another person, call 911 to get help.

Act F.A.S.T. to protect against brain damage and possibly death. You may worry that you’re making too much of certain symptoms, but it’s better to be safe rather than sorry when it comes to strokes.

Every minute counts and can impact a person’s ultimate outcome.