How to Tell if Someone Is Having a Stroke

Signs of stroke to watch for and what to do

By , Caring.com senior editor
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Quick summary

According to the American Heart Association, a stroke occurs every 45 seconds. But there's good news: Even if you or someone you know suffers a stroke, immediate treatment can greatly reduce the damage. For many strokes, treatment with intravenous clot-busting drugs can make a significant difference. The catch? These drugs need to be administered within three hours of the onset of stroke symptoms. And the sooner treatment starts, the better the outcome.

To give someone the best possible chance of recovery, you should familiarize yourself with the warning signs of stroke. Remember that not all strokes are the same. Even if a friend or someone in your family has had a stroke before, a second stroke or a stroke in another family member might not have the same symptoms.

What to do if someone shows signs of having a stroke

It's common for someone having a stroke to try to downplay the situation because he's embarrassed and doesn't want to cause a scene for no reason. Take charge and call for help even if he tries to talk you out of it. Don't wait to see if his symptoms go away -- and call even if his symptoms suddenly disappear. He may be having a transient ischemic attack (TIA), or ministroke, which is itself a warning sign that a full-blown stroke may be on the horizon.

If you notice one or more of the following stroke signs, call 911 right away. Make a note of the exact time when symptoms began; this information can be extremely helpful for the emergency room personnel.

Stroke sign #1: Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg -- especially on one side of the body

You may notice that the stroke victim's mouth suddenly looks "uneven." Ask him to smile and see if one side droops. He may have difficulty moving his arm or controlling his fingers. Have him close his eyes and raise both arms to see if one of them drifts downward.

Stroke sign #2: Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding

Language problems are among the most common signs of stroke. Someone having a stroke may suddenly begin slurring his speech or have trouble speaking. He may not be able to understand what you're saying to him. Ask him to repeat a simple sentence back to you, such as "I went to the store today." If he has difficulty getting the words out, the cause could be a stroke.

Stroke sign #3: Sudden vision trouble in one or both eyes

Vision problems that come on suddenly is another common stroke symptom. What to look for: Someone having a stoke may not be able to see clearly out of one eye, or may have difficulty looking to the right or left. He may complain of blurry or double vision.

Stroke sign #4: Sudden difficulty walking, loss of balance or coordination, dizziness

Walking as if intoxicated, stumbling, or even falling down are all stroke symptoms. Other similar signs to watch for: Walking with legs spread apart or a sudden loss of fine motor ability, such as an inability to write.

Stroke sign #5: Sudden severe headache with no known cause

A headache is not necessarily a stroke symptom. But if a headache strikes unexpectedly or seems unusually intense, it's reason for concern. If a stiff neck, facial pain, or vomiting accompanies the headache, the cause could be an intracranial hemorrhage, also known as a "red stroke."

Not all of these warning signs occur with every stroke. Don't ignore stroke symptoms even if they disappear. And don't let the person talk you out of calling 911. Tell him you understand that he's upset, but you're going to call anyway because you love him. The most precious gift you can give someone who's having a stroke is immediate treatment.