Warning signs of a stroke: What to watch out for

by Kaiser Permanente |

A stroke is a sudden interruption to the brain’s blood supply. Since blood is what carries oxygen throughout the body, having a stroke cuts off the brain from its oxygen supply — which can destroy brain cells. In fact, once a stroke begins, a typical person can lose about 1.9 million brain cells every minute.1 That means after only 20 minutes, a stroke can kill nearly 40 million brain cells. The longer you wait to get treatment, the more damage a stroke can cause to your brain.

“The sooner you get to the hospital, the better you’re going to do,” explains David W. Schmidt, MD, a neurologist at Kaiser Permanente Washington. “The administration of r-tPA, which is used to dissolve a stroke-causing clot and restore blood flow to the brain, needs to be given soon after the onset of symptoms. The faster we give it, the better the outcome.”

While strokes more commonly occur with older adults, it’s important that everyone know the warning signs. Recognizing a problem when it happens can help prevent permanent disability and, in some cases, death.

Know the symptoms so you can respond F.A.S.T.

To help you remember stroke symptoms and what you need to do, use the F.A.S.T. acronym, which stands for: 

  • Face drooping
    Drooping or numbness — particularly on one side.

  • Arm weakness
    Having trouble gripping, picking things up, or lifting arms.

  • Speech
    Slurred speech or trouble saying words.

  • Time
    Don’t waste precious time — if you or someone else is experiencing any of the above symptoms, get to the hospital or call 911 immediately.

While the F.A.S.T. acronym is helpful for remembering the main stroke symptoms, there are other less common signs of a stroke to be aware of. These include:

  • Numbness or weakness
    Not just in the face or arms, but legs too — especially if it’s only on one side of the body.

  • Confusion
    Trouble speaking or understanding words.

  • Vision problems
    Double vision, blurriness in one or both eyes, or trouble seeing in your peripheral line of sight.

  • Dizziness
    Trouble walking, losing balance, or feeling dizzy.

  • Severe headache
    A headache that happens quickly and without a known cause.

You’ll also want to seek medical attention if you experience stroke-like symptoms — even if they go away quickly. It’s possible you may have experienced a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which is commonly referred to as a mini-stroke. Having a TIA can be a warning sign of a future stroke, but getting treatment early may help. Talk to your doctor right away if you’re concerned.

Practice prevention

Knowing the risk factors is one of the first steps in stroke prevention. Once you know your risk, you can take measures to protect yourself. 

One of the largest groups of people who are at risk for strokes are those with metabolic syndrome. This syndrome occurs when a person is living with the following conditions:

  • A body mass index (BMI) greater than 30
  • High blood sugar
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure when it’s not controlled)
  • High cholesterol and triglyceride levels

Getting regular health screenings will help you know if you’re living with any of these conditions. In most cases these conditions can be corrected or prevented by adopting a healthy lifestyle.

“In addition to those with metabolic syndrome, smokers are the other group that is at a high risk for having a stroke,” says Dr. Schmidt. Smoking can double to quadruple your risk of having a stroke.2

And once you have a stroke, your risk doesn’t disappear. In fact, 1 in 4 stroke survivors will have another.3

The good news is that a little prevention can go a long way. According to the American Stroke Association, up to 80% of strokes may be prevented with a combination of medication and healthy habits.3

So, whether you’ve had a stroke or want to reduce your risk of having one in your lifetime, you’ll want to focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This includes:

  • Eating healthy
  • Exercising regularly
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Taking medications as prescribed
  • Quitting smoking
  • Scheduling regular screenings and check-ups

Life-saving care, delivered faster with Kaiser Permanente

When a person has a stroke, several different treatments need to happen simultaneously. Kaiser Permanente’s doctors, pharmacists, radiologists, and care teams work together to quickly provide stroke patients with the care they need. In fact, we’re able to deliver lifesaving treatment faster than the national average.4

From the moment paramedics notify them that a stroke patient is on the way, our care teams work together to:

  • Prepare the clot-busting medication r-tPA so the medication is ready to go when needed.
  • Use a telestroke cart to start a videoconference with the patient and our on-call, specially trained stroke neurologists. The telestroke cart also enables our team to review the patient’s electronic test results and medical history.
  • Read neuroimaging studies for clots and signs of a stroke.
  • Review a checklist to ensure the clot-busting drug r-tPA can be administered safely.

Concerned about your stroke risk?

If you have questions or concerns about your stroke risk, want to learn more about how to recognize the signs and symptoms, or need to schedule a health screening, talk to your doctor.