If you believe you’re having a stroke, call 911 for immediate help. Paramedics can begin lifesaving treatments and an ambulance can provide safe, fast transport to a hospital.

A stroke occurs when there’s a blockage of blood flow to the brain. Strokes are medical emergencies — getting medical help to stop a stroke in progress is critical in preventing stroke complications such as permanent brain damage or death.

Treatment for stroke is most effective within 3 hours of when you first experience symptoms of a stroke, so your quick action can make a difference if you or a loved one is having symptoms of a possible stroke.

Here’s what you need to know about the signs of a stroke, as well as what to expect at the hospital for diagnosis and treatment.

Use the FAST method for diagnosing a potential stroke

If you suspect someone may be having a stroke, use the “FAST” method immediately. This includes the following steps:

  • Face: Ask them to smile and note whether one side of their face droops.
  • Arms: Ask them to raise their arms and note whether one arm is drifting down compared to the other.
  • Speech: Notice whether your loved one’s speech is slurred or sounds unusual in any way.
  • Time: If you observe any of the above signs, call 911. You’ll also want to tell medical personnel what time you observed possible stroke symptoms so they can determine the best course of treatment.

Infographic showing how to identify and stop a stroke in progressShare on Pinterest
How to identify and stop a stroke in progress. Design by Ruth Basagoitia

A stroke is considered an emergency where every minute counts. The quicker a stroke is treated, the less likely that permanent brain damage may develop.

While it may be tempting to take a “wait-and-see” approach when you’re experiencing unusual symptoms, there is nothing you can do at home to stop or reverse a stroke in progress — only a doctor can treat a stroke.

Any case of a suspected stroke must be treated as an emergency situation. Call 911 for help right away. An ambulance can help take you or your loved one to the hospital and begin immediate, potentially life-saving treatment.

What NOT to do during a stroke

If you or a loved one are experiencing possible symptoms of a stroke, DO NOT:

  • avoid calling 911
  • try to drive yourself or a loved one to the hospital — it’s best to wait for an ambulance and get immediate help from a paramedic instead
  • go to sleep
  • eat any food or drink liquids
  • take any medications — these can become choking hazards and possibly increase the risk of bleeding, depending on the type of medication

Once at the hospital, a doctor will diagnose a stroke based on a combination of:

  • your symptoms, as reported by yourself or a paramedic, as well as ones displayed during a physical exam
  • your medical history
  • imaging tests of your brain, such as an MRI or CT scan, which can help determine the type of stroke you’re having
  • an electrocardiogram (EKG), which may help detect heart problems that could contribute to a stroke
  • blood testing to measure your platelets and sugar (glucose) levels to help determine whether you can take certain stroke treatments

These diagnostic tests are important in helping a doctor determine what emergency medical treatments may work best for your own situation.

Treatment options

Once a doctor determines what type of stroke you have had and what medications you qualify for, they may proceed with one or more of the following options:

  • Tissue plasminogen activator (tPA): Administered within 3 to 4 1/2 hours of symptom onset, this medication may help break up blood clots in the brain that contribute to a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or ischemic stroke.
  • Blood thinners: These medications include aspirin or other anticoagulants that work to help break up blood clots in ischemic strokes.
  • Blood pressure medications: Primarily used for hemorrhagic strokes, these medications can help reduce pressure on the blood vessels in your brain. You’ll also be taken off of blood thinners if you have been taking them.
  • Aneurysm treatment: This may involve clipping to stop an underlying aneurysm from bleeding or a coil embolization to cut off blood flow to prevent future bursting.
  • Excess fluid removal: A doctor may drain excess fluids that can accumulate during a stroke and create damaging pressure in your brain.
  • Surgery: Used as an emergency procedure in hemorrhagic stroke treatment, options may include the removal of pooled blood, tangled arteries, or a portion of your skull to accommodate brain swelling.

Knowing the possible symptoms of a stroke can be potentially lifesaving. A stroke happens suddenly, with symptoms developing quickly and without warning.

If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms, call your local emergency number right away:

  • Sudden weakness or numbness in the body: This tends to happen on one side of your body, such as one arm or one side of your face.
  • Severe headache: This is especially true if it comes on suddenly without a known cause.
  • Vision problems: You may have sudden vision difficulties in one or both eyes.
  • Confusion: This may come on suddenly and also include problems with speaking or difficulties understanding others who may be speaking with you.
  • Sudden movement problems: These include issues with balance, walking, and a loss of coordination.

While anyone at any age may have a stroke, the chances are greater in adults over age 55.

People assigned female at birth are also considered to have a higher risk of stroke, along with a higher chance of developing life threatening complications from them.

Certain risk factors may also increase your chances of experiencing a stroke. You may have a higher chance of having a stroke at some point in your life if you have:

Lifestyle factors also play a role in your risk factors for stroke, and these are thought to account for the increasing rate of strokes in people ages 15 to 49.

Some of these factors include:

While certain risk factors such as age and family history are unavoidable, you can take steps to decrease your individual risks of developing a stroke.

Ask a doctor for help with:

  • managing and treating any underlying medical conditions you may have, such as hypertension and diabetes
  • limiting sodium in your diet, which may also help prevent hypertension
  • getting started with a healthy diet — preferably one that is rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and low in saturated fats from animal products, such as the Mediterranean diet
  • reducing alcohol intake
  • quitting smoking
  • starting a regular exercise program
  • achieving or maintaining a healthy weight for your body

A research review in 2021 suggests that aggressive preventive measures such as these could reduce a person’s risk of having a stroke by 80% or more.

Additionally, you may consider checking your blood pressure regularly at home in between doctor’s visits, especially if you have a personal or family history of hypertension or stroke. You’ll also want to make sure your doctor is checking your cholesterol levels at least every 5 years.

Every minute counts when a stroke happens. But stopping a stroke in progress is dependent on reaching out for immediate medical attention.

If you think you or someone you know is having signs of a stroke, call your local emergency number like 911. Do not wait or attempt to drive to the hospital on your own.

If you’re concerned about a personal or family history of stroke or have been told you have a higher risk of one, talk with a healthcare professional about preventive tools and lifestyle changes that may help.