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How to Spot the Top Warning Signs of a Stroke

Medically reviewed by 
Jessica Christie
How to Spot the Top Warning Signs of a Stroke

Seeing a loved one suffer a stroke can be one of the most frightening experiences imaginable. Knowing the warning signs in advance can make all the difference, potentially saving their life or preventing serious disability. 

If you believe you may be experiencing a stroke, please call 911 immediately. Here are the signs to look for:

This article will guide you through more details about the crucial signs of a stroke and provide you with the essential steps to take in an emergency. You'll learn how to quickly and effectively recognize the symptoms, understand when to call for help, and know what to do while waiting for medical assistance.


What is a Stroke?

A stroke occurs when the blood flow to a part of the brain is cut off. Without blood, brain cells don't get the oxygen and nutrients they need and begin to die within minutes. This can lead to permanent brain damage, long-term disability, or even death. 

In the United States, stroke is the fifth leading cause of death. Nearly 800,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke each year—that's roughly one person every 40 seconds. Recognizing the signs quickly is essential to minimize brain damage and improve outcomes. There are two main types of stroke: ischemic and hemorrhagic. 

Ischemic strokes, which are more common, occur when a blood clot blocks or narrows an artery leading to the brain, severely reducing blood flow. They often result from conditions that cause arterial narrowing or clot formation elsewhere in the body. Treatment typically involves medication to dissolve the clot. 

Hemorrhagic strokes occur when a blood vessel in the brain bursts, causing internal bleeding. This type can be triggered by high blood pressure, aneurysms, or physical trauma. Treatment focuses on controlling the bleeding and reducing brain pressure. Both types demand quick treatment to minimize brain damage and improve survival chances.

It’s also important to note Transient Ischemic Attacks (TIAs), often called mini-strokes. These occur when there is a temporary blockage of blood flow to the brain. While the symptoms may resolve on their own within a short time, TIAs should be treated as serious warnings, as they significantly increase the risk of a full-blown stroke later on.

Major Warning Signs of a Stroke

One of the easiest ways to remember the key signs of a stroke is by using the acronym F.A.S.T. Each letter stands for an important symptom to watch for:

Facial Drooping

One of the most visible signs of a stroke is facial drooping. This occurs when one side of the face becomes numb or weak, causing it to droop. This can make it look like the person's face is uneven or lopsided.

How to Recognize Facial Drooping

  • Look closely at the person's face. A drooping mouth or eyelid on one side can be a clear indicator. 
  • Ask the person to smile or show their teeth. If one side of the face doesn’t move as well as the other, this could be a sign of a stroke. It appears as an uneven smile or less movement on one side of the face.

Arm Weakness

Arm weakness involves a sudden loss of strength in one arm, making it difficult to raise or use effectively. It usually affects one side of the body, reflecting the brain hemisphere where the stroke is occurring. 

How to Test for Arm Weakness

To quickly assess if someone might be experiencing arm weakness due to a stroke, you can perform a simple test:

  • Ask the person to raise both arms at the same time and hold them out in front of their body or to the side.
  • Look to see if one arm begins to fall or drift downward compared to the other. It’s important to note any difficulty or inability in raising the arms, as this is a sign of weakness.
  • If the results are unclear, ask the person to try the test again. Sometimes, nerves or confusion might affect the first attempt.

Speech Difficulties

Speech difficulties are a common symptom of a stroke, marked by impaired ability to speak or understand language. This may manifest as slurred speech, trouble finding words, or confusion in understanding simple sentences.

How to Identify Speech Problems

  • Choose a simple and familiar sentence, such as "The sky is blue," or "I love sunny days." Ask the person to repeat the sentence back to you. This helps assess both speech production and clarity.
  • Pay attention to how they say the sentence. Notice if their speech is slurred or if they struggle to form the words correctly. Also, listen to see if they substitute words or use words incorrectly without noticing.
  • Give a simple command or ask a basic question, such as "Point to the door" or "What is your name?" If they struggle to understand instructions or questions, it could indicate a problem with language comprehension.

Time to Call Emergency Services

Time is critical: the sooner a stroke is treated, the better the chances are for recovery and reducing long-term damage. Strokes require immediate medical intervention because the treatments are most effective when administered as soon as possible after the onset of symptoms. 

The first few hours are critical, as the longer the brain is deprived of oxygen, the greater the damage that can occur. This is why stroke treatments often have a narrow window—usually within three to four hours of the first symptoms—to be effective.

If you or someone around you shows signs of a stroke, do not wait to see if the symptoms disappear. Call emergency services immediately.

Additional Warning Signs

Aside from the main warning signs summed up in the F.A.S.T. acronym, there are other signs that can point to a stroke. Here are some of these additional warning signs:

  • Sudden confusion or difficulty understanding.
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause.
  • Unexpected dizziness, loss of balance, or lack of coordination.
  • Sudden trouble walking or unexplained falls.

What to Do If You Suspect a Stroke

When you suspect a stroke, acting quickly is important. Here are the steps to take immediately after identifying stroke symptoms, along with tips on how to provide support while waiting for medical help:

  • Call Emergency Services: Immediately dial your local emergency number to get medical help as soon as possible.
  • Note the Time of Symptom Onset: Write down or remember the time when the first symptoms appeared. This is crucial information for the emergency responders and medical staff to determine the appropriate treatment.
  • Keep the Person Calm: Encourage the person to stay calm and still. If they need to lie down, make sure their head is elevated and supported.
  • Loosen Tight Clothing: Ensure that nothing is constricting their neck, chest, or waist.
  • Check for Breathing and Consciousness: If the person loses consciousness or has trouble breathing, begin CPR or other first aid measures if you are trained to do so.
  • Do Not Give Medications: Avoid giving any medications unless directed by a medical professional, as it might not be suitable for the type of stroke.

The Importance of Not Driving to the Hospital and Waiting for an Ambulance

When someone shows signs of having a stroke, it might seem quickest to drive them directly to the hospital. However, here are reasons why calling an ambulance is a far better choice:

  • Professional Medical Care: Ambulance personnel can start providing life-saving care immediately, which might not be possible if driving in a personal vehicle.
  • Faster Admission to Emergency Care: Ambulances communicate with the hospital en route, allowing emergency departments to prepare for immediate treatment upon arrival, which is crucial in stroke cases.
  • Safety: It's safer for everyone if you're not rushing to the hospital in a high-stress situation, potentially putting yourself, the patient, and others on the road at risk.

Risk Factors for Stroke

Here are key risk factors that can increase the chance of having a stroke:

Risk Factors

  • High blood pressure
  • Previous stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA)
  • Tobacco use and smoking
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Personal or family history of stroke
  • Age, particularly after age 55
  • Gender: Stroke is more common in women than men
  • Heart conditions like coronary artery disease, valve defects, irregular heartbeat, and enlarged heart chambers
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Excessive alcohol intake

How You Can Prevent Stroke

Although you may not be able to completely prevent a stroke, taking proactive steps can significantly reduce your risk. Here are some effective preventive strategies:

  • Keep your blood pressure within a healthy range.
  • Know your cholesterol levels and have them checked at least every 5 years.
  • Get checked for heart issues and follow any treatment plans.
  • Monitor and control your blood sugar if you have diabetes.
  • Consider quitting if you smoke.
  • Maintain a moderate weight.
  • Exercise most days of the week.
  • Eat a diet that limits saturated fats and cholesterol.
  • Take any medications as prescribed to manage and treat known health conditions.


Key Takeaways

  • Use the F.A.S.T. acronym (Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech difficulties, Time to call for help) to quickly identify stroke symptoms.
  • Immediate treatment is critical for both types of strokes, ischemic and hemorrhagic, to prevent severe brain damage.
  • Be aware of additional signs such as sudden confusion, severe headaches, and loss of balance, as these can also indicate a stroke.
  • Always call emergency services if you suspect a stroke; do not try to drive to the hospital yourself because ambulance personnel can provide vital care immediately.
  • Lower your risk of stroke by managing blood pressure, avoiding smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and keeping cholesterol and diabetes under control.
The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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