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How do you know if someone is having a stroke?

A man helps his wife take her blood pressure at home

Here are some of the signs that should ring alarm bells

A man helps his wife take her blood pressure at home

Most of us have heard of a stroke, but what does it actually mean to have one? And how would you know if you or someone you were with was having a stroke?

What is a stroke?

A stroke happens when one of the blood vessels in your brain either gets blocked or bleeds. This reduces the blood flow to the area of the brain supplied by that artery. The resulting lack of oxygen and nutrients causes the brain cells in the affected area to become damaged and die. The amount of damage depends on how long the blood supply is cut off.

What is a mini-stroke?

A mini-stroke, or transient ischaemic attack (TIA), is when there is a temporary blockage of an artery in the brain. The symptoms usually last less than an hour, but can last up to 24 hours.

TIAs are a warning sign - if you have one, your risk of having a stroke is increased. And your risk of having a stroke is highest in the hours and days after having a TIA.

An illuminated ambulance sits with its doors open as the sun sets in the background

How would I know if it’s a stroke?

The signs of a stroke vary, depending on the part of the brain that is affected and the extent of the damage. But there are some classic signs that should ring alarm bells. Recognising these common signs - which usually come on suddenly - and acting quickly can save your life and reduce the chances of disability.

If you or someone you are with experiences any of the following signs or symptoms, call 000 for an ambulance. Think of this as a brain attack which needs fast action.

The Stroke Foundation in Australia recommends the F.A.S.T. test:

  • F: Has the person’s FACE drooped? Is their face uneven or drooping on one side when they smile?

  • A: Can the person lift both ARMS? Is one arm weaker than the other or drifting downward?

  • S: Is the person’s SPEECH slurred or different? Do they understand you?

  • T: TIME is critical - call 000 straight away.

Other possible signs of a stroke include sudden onset of numbness or weakness on one or both sides of the body, trouble swallowing, confusion, headache, dizziness, visual problems and problems with balance and coordination.

Time is of the essence

Emergency medical treatment, started as soon as possible after symptoms begin, gives the best chance of successful recovery.

So, calling an ambulance is the best thing you can do if you think someone may be having a stroke. Paramedics can start treatment straight away and they can also take the person to the nearest hospital with specialist stroke treatment and notify the hospital that they are coming. This all helps to reduce the amount of time until treatment starts.

Make sure you call 000 for an ambulance even if the symptoms seem to have resolved or are getting better. Treatment may still be needed, and it’s always better to err on the safe side.

Credit: TED Ed

Why is acting quickly so important?

Acting quickly is vital because there are treatments available that can unblock arteries and restore blood flow, but these treatments generally need to be given within a few hours of the onset of symptoms. The sooner you are treated, the better.

Strokes that are caused by a bleeding blood vessel in the brain (brain haemorrhage) will need different treatment. But again, the sooner you get to hospital, the better.

First aid while you wait for an ambulance

If they're conscious, try to keep the person calm and comfortable. Don’t give them anything to eat or drink.

If the person is unconscious but breathing, lay the person on their side and ensure airway is clear; check their pulse and breathing. If they stop breathing or don’t have a pulse (heartbeat), perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). If you don’t know how to do CPR, the emergency call taker will talk you through it until the ambulance arrives.

For more advice on stroke and heart disease prevention, check out our article by Dr Sandro Demaio on the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet.

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