How to know when someone is having a stroke

Are you familiar with the signs and symptoms of a stroke? Witnessing someone suffer a stroke — or having one yourself — is a frightening experience. The good news is that knowing what’s happening and what to do next can make all the difference in outcomes. 

First, let’s get familiar with stroke, what it is, and how often it occurs. For a comprehensive look at the disease, we recommend the annual Heart Disease and Stroke Statistical Update, available through the American Heart Association. But to get an overview, here are a few quick facts from the CDC:

  • Every year, more than 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke. Someone has a stroke about every 40 seconds. 
  • About 185,000 (or 1 in 4) stroke victims have had a stroke in the past.
  • Stroke kills about 140,000 Americans each year — that’s 1 of every 20 deaths.
  • In one survey, only 38% of respondents were aware of all major stroke symptoms and knew to call 911 when someone was having a stroke.
  • Patients who arrive at the emergency room within three hours of their first symptoms often have less disability three months after a stroke, compared with those who received delayed care.

Three types of stroke and their causes

You can think of a stroke, also known as a CVA (cerebrovascular accident), sort of like a “brain attack.” About 87% of strokes happen because there’s a sudden block in the arteries leading to the brain. These are ischemic strokes. Other strokes, called hemorrhagic, occur when a blood vessel bursts and bleeds into the brain. Both types of stroke prevent blood from reaching the brain the way it needs to, which causes brain cells to die.

If a stroke’s symptoms last a short time (often as little as five minutes or less), it’s considered a “mini-stroke.” The clinical term for this type of stroke is TIA (transient ischemic attack). And while it doesn’t usually cause permanent damage, a TIA is a warning sign. It means the brain has a blockage, which may get worse and lead to a major stroke.

Signs and symptoms of a stroke

It’s important to note that the signs of a stroke will vary depending on which part of the brain is being affected. That said, look out for the following symptoms if you suspect a stroke:

  • Sudden onset of an intense headache
  • Facial drooping. This is most obvious by noticing a corner of the mouth is drooping. Ask the person to smile, or smile in front of a mirror if you think you’re having a stroke. When one side of the mouth goes up and the other doesn’t, it’s a definitive sign of a stroke.
  • Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg on one side of the body. Try raising both arms over the head and see if one arm begins to fall.
  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty understanding speech
  • Blurred vision
  • Difficulty walking

Remember these signs can change based on which part of the brain is being affected and the extent of the damage.

How to respond to a stroke

Now, what do you do if you see or experience the signs and symptoms of stroke? Call 911 immediately. This is a serious medical emergency that requires advanced care and immediate treatment. Do not spend time waiting to see if it goes away. Those minutes are crucial to determining outcomes — if, when, and how recovery happens.

While you’re waiting for EMS to arrive, have the person lie down with something under their head to elevate it 8-12 inches. A pillow or folded blankets work well if you’re at home. Use a bundled-up jacket or other bulky piece of clothing if you’re out somewhere.

Here are a few other tips that can be helpful in the moment and aid in recovery:

  • Do not let the person talk you out of calling 911. Again, every minute that passes could mean more brain damage and possible death.
  • Do not drive to the hospital if you suspect you or someone else is having a stroke. Calling for EMS is the best option because it’s safer and they can start life-saving care right away.
  • Do not eat, drink, go to sleep, or take medication. These can make the situation worse. Focus on getting professional help instead of trying to treat symptoms on your own.
  • Try to note when you first noticed the symptoms so you can tell EMS.
  • Perform CPR if needed. While most stroke patients don’t need CPR, it is sometimes necessary.

How to prevent a stroke

Of course, prevention is the best tool for fighting this scary and serious disease. The same guidance for preventing a heart attack applies for stroke:

  • Eat a nutritious diet, exercise, manage stress, sleep well, and get annual checkups.
  • Control blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
  • Maintain weight in a healthy range.
  • Don’t smoke.

A healthy lifestyle and awareness are the keys to most health issues. Do your best — but it’s always good to be prepared to help yourself or someone else, just in case.

Want to know more about how to save someone in an emergency like a stroke?

We’re here to help. Contact us to schedule a CPR, First Aid, or other life-saving skills course.