It happened so fast. Sharon Brooks, co-owner of the trendy but now-defunct Hamburger Mary's restaurant in San Francisco, was ringing out the cash register and trying to reach her son's girlfriend on the phone. But when the young woman answered, all that came out of Brooks' mouth was gibberish.

"I tried to talk and couldn't. I went into the bathroom and felt my left side tingling," says Brooks, who was only 51 when this happened. "I knew the signs of a stroke. But I looked at my pupils and they were equal." Then she went out front, sat down next to one of her employees and recovered her speech long enough to say, " 'Call 911. I think I'm having a stroke.'

"Then my left side went out," she says, "and I fell off the chair."

Clearly, Brooks wasn't given many warnings that a stroke was on the way. And, even when confronted with some classic symptoms, she was inclined not to believe it was really happening. But all of us should learn to recognize and heed the harbingers of a stroke. Every minute counts when blood flow to the brain is interrupted. The most common kind of stroke can be treated with a clot-dissolving drug, but treatment must start within three hours to be most effective.

In this post:

FAST: How do I know if my loved one is having a stroke?

The Stroke Association uses the acronyms F-A-S-T and 9-1-1:

  • F - for Face Drooping: Is the face number or drooping on one side? Ask the person to smile and see if one side of the mouth turns down.
  • A - for Arm Weakness. Ask the person to raise both arms: Does one drift down?
  • S - for Speech Difficulty. Is the speech hard to understand? Ask them to repeat "The sky is blue." Is there any difficulty doing that?
  • T - for Time to Call 9-1-1. If your loved one shows ANY of these symptoms, call 911 immediately.

What are the warning signs of a stroke?

Here are the key warning signs, according to the American Stroke Association:

  • Numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg, often only on one side of the body
  • Confusion, inability to think clearly
  • trouble speaking or comprehending language
  • Trouble walking, loss of balance or coordination, dizziness
  • Sudden paralysis of areas of the body
  • Trouble seeing through one or both eyes
  • Extreme headache with unknown cause

What should I do if I experience stroke warning symptoms?

  • Call 911 immediately, even if the symptoms last only a few minutes, call 911 immediately -- a stroke is a medical emergency. Have someone else call an ambulance if necessary, or rush you to the emergency room. (If you're unable to speak and are alone, many emergency response dispatchers have address identification; just push 911 and keep the line open.)
  • Make a note of the time you first noticed warning symptoms. This will greatly help the emergency team to act as efficiently as possible and help determine the appropriate treatment.
  • If your friend or partner is showing symptoms and becomes unconscious, check their pulse and breathing. If there is none, call 911 and start CPR while you wait for the ambulance to arrive.
  • Help the person showing symptoms lie down in case they lose consciousness.
  • Unlock the front door to give the paramedics fast access to the possible stroke patient.

What to avoid when you or your loved one is having a stroke

  • Do not let the person go to sleep
  • Do not give the person medication (such as aspirin)
  • Do not give the person food or drink
  • Do not let them drive themselves to the ER due to the risk of losing consciousness

What should I do after calling 911?

Because a loss of feeling in your legs may make you fall, you should sit down in a comfortable place. If you're with someone who may be having a stroke, quickly assemble his medications and medical records to bring along with you to the hospital.

Other conditions resemble a stroke, such as low blood sugar in people with diabetes. If you have diabetes, follow your doctor's previous instructions on how to raise low blood sugar. The American Diabetes Association suggests you eat or drink 15 grams of carbohydrates to raise your blood sugar, such as half a cup of fruit juice, 5 to 6 pieces of hard candy, or 3 glucose tablets.

"Low blood sugar could mimic a stroke, and it wouldn't be a good idea to let time go by if the body's not getting the sugar it needs," says Dr. Andy Jagoda, a professor at the department of emergency medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a member of the National Institutes of Health's Brain Attack Coalition.

What will happen when the ambulance comes?

You should be in good hands. On the way to the hospital, paramedics will check your vital signs and learn what they can about your medical history and the medications you're taking. They'll make sure your airway is clear, check your breathing and listen to your lungs and heart, take your blood pressure and give you oxygen. You'll also likely be attached to a heart monitor, and have your finger pricked for a blood test.

Paramedics may also perform a basic neurological exam to check for signs of stroke, such as difficulty with speech or weakness in the arms or legs. Whether they ask or not, you should tell them the time that the symptoms began and communicate that time to the physicians at the hospital. This is critical since some treatments are effective only if administered within a certain time period.

Are stroke signs different in men and women?

Most signs and symptoms of a stroke are alike for men and women, though some occur more often in males. Stroke is more common in women than men, and women of all ages are more likely than men to die from a stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Men seem to report experiencing the more common signs and symptoms of strokes, while women seem to report experiencing less common signs and symptoms of strokes:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Shortness of breath
  • General body weakness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Hiccups

What if it turns out that I don't have a stroke?

You may have what's popularly called a "mini-stroke," known as a transient ischemic attack (TIA). These mini-strokes occur when there's a brief blockage or slowing of blood flow to an area of the brain; they produce the same symptoms as stroke, but don't cause lasting harm. However, TIAs are usually a warning that there's an area of vulnerability in an artery, such as narrowing or partial closure. In addition, mini-strokes usually precede a stroke that causes permanent damage -- up to 30 percent of ischemic strokes occur within a month of a TIA. Detecting and treating the TIA early could help prevent permanent damage from a stroke in the future.

Another important reason for taking such symptoms seriously is that they may also be a warning sign of an impending rupture of an artery or hemorrhagic stroke. Before the artery bursts, you may experience a sudden unexplained pounding headache, loss of speech or other stroke symptoms as a result of a small amount of bleeding from the weakened area. If you know the symptoms of a stroke, you're much more likely to get to a doctor who can locate the weakened blood vessels and correct them before the artery ruptures.

FAQ: Stroke Warning Signs

    What is a stroke?

The two types of stroke are hemorrhagic (bleeding into or around the brain) and ischemic (blockage of a blood vessel supplying the brain). In an ischemic stroke, a blood clot stops blood from flowing through an artery or blood vessel in the brain. Ischemic strokes make up about 80% of all strokes. When a blood vessel in the brain breaks and bleeds into the brain, this is called a hemorrhagic stroke. About 20 percent of strokes are hemorrhagic.

    Are there warning signs days before a stroke?

Warning signs of an ischemic stroke may show up as early as seven days before an attack and need to be treated right away to stop serious brain damage, according to a study of stroke patients that came out in the March 8, 2005 issue of Neurology.

    Can drinking water prevent a stroke?

Drink a lot of water. A recent study from Loma Linda University found that if you drink at least five glasses of water every day, your risk of stroke could go down by 53 percent.

    Can a stroke happen suddenly without warning?

The symptoms and signs of a stroke are different for each person, but they usually start quickly. Your symptoms will depend on the area of your brain affected and the degree of the damage because different parts of your brain control different parts of your body.

    How long does it take to recover from a stroke?

Stroke is a leading cause of serious, long-term adult disability. In America, four million people deal with the aftereffects of a stroke. The severity of a stroke often determines how long it takes to recover physical abilities such as walking after a stroke. Although 50 to 70 percent of stroke survivors regain functional independence, 15 to 30 percent are permanently disabled.

    How can I reduce my risk of stroke?

Monitor your cholesterol level and keep track of low or high blood pressure, quit smoking, exercise regularly, and find out if you should take a blood clotting medication to reduce your risk of stroke.

Further Resources

American Stroke Association 888-4STROKE (888-478-7653)

American Heart Association

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke The country's leading supporter of biomedical research on disorders of the brain and nervous system, NINDS has the latest news on stroke research.


Signs and Symptoms of a Stroke. American Heart Association.

Stroke is a medical emergency, call 911! American Stroke Association, a division of American Heart Association. Interview with Andy Jagoda, MD, professor of emergency medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

"Sahni, Ritu, Acute Stroke: Implications for Prehospital Care" Position Paper, National Association of EMS Physicians, Prehospital Emergency Care, Volume 4, Number 3

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. What You Need to Know About a Stroke.

American Diabetes Association. Hypoglycemia.

American Diabetes Association; Introduction: Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes—2022. Diabetes Care 1 January 2022; 45 (Supplement_1): S1–S2.

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