What to do if someone has a stroke: dos and don’ts

A stroke occurs when the blood vessels that supply the brain burst or become blocked, depriving the brain of the oxygen it needs to function properly. Without oxygen, the brain is damaged and may even die.

This article explains what you need to know about stroke, including the symptoms, dos and don’ts if someone has a stroke.

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Symptoms of stroke

Sudden changes or symptoms that could indicate a stroke include:

  • Numbness and weakness of the face, arms or legs, especially on one side of the body
  • Confused speech or difficulty speaking
  • Difficulty seeing in one or both eyes
  • Difficulty walking, loss of balance, or problems with coordination
  • Extreme headache of unknown cause

Types of stroke

Strokes caused by a blood clot are called ischemic strokes, and those caused by a hemorrhage in the brain are called hemorrhagic strokes. Each year in the United States, 795,000 people have a stroke. Strokes can cause permanent brain damage, disability and, in some cases, death.

What to do

If you suspect someone is having a stroke, call 911 as soon as possible.

A useful tool for identifying if someone is having a stroke is the FAST Warning Sign Set, which includes:

  • “F” for the drooping face: Does the person’s face tilt to one side or does their smile appear uneven?
  • “A” for arm weakness: Can the person raise and extend both arms equally? Are we going down?
  • “S” for speech difficulties: Does the person have difficulty speaking, including trouble with words, use senseless or garbled speech, or unable to speak at all?
  • “T” for the time of calling 911: If the answer is yes to any of these questions, call 911 immediately.

When calling 911, use the word “AVC” when speaking to the dispatcher to explain what is going on. Additional actions to be taken include:

  • Remember when the symptoms started, if possible: Inform the paramedics if you are unsure when symptoms started or if the patient has just woken up from a night’s sleep. Having a time of onset of symptoms is helpful for healthcare providers in deciding the best treatment options.
  • Track their symptoms: Be prepared to tell emergency personnel what the person’s symptoms are.
  • Talk to the patient calmly: Assure them that help will be there soon.
  • Perform CPR, if necessary: ​​Check the person’s pulse and make sure they are breathing.

Upon arrival of paramedics, communicate as clearly as possible about the events leading up to and including the patient’s stroke symptoms.

What you should not do

There are also several things you shouldn’t do in the event of a stroke, including:

  • Don’t drive them to the hospital: An ambulance can provide life-saving care more quickly and sort the patient on the way to the hospital so that they can start treatment as soon as they arrive.
  • Do not give medication: The type of stroke a person has will determine the type of medication they should receive. This information cannot be known without diagnostic imaging in the hospital.
  • Do not give the person anything to eat or drink: Stroke can cause loss of control of the muscles of the face and neck and increase the risk of choking.

Post stroke

Keeping the home safe is essential for people recovering from stroke. Some of the difficulties that a stroke patient may have include:

  • Weakness or numbness on one or both sides of the body
  • Paralysis on one or both sides of the body
  • Poor balance and coordination
  • Memory loss
  • Tired
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control

Managing these residual problems may require home changes to ensure that stroke patients can move around as easily and safely as possible.

It is essential to follow your healthcare professional’s recommendations regarding walking needs and potential limitations at home. Some of the changes may include:

  • Improve floor coverings, for example by removing carpets that present tripping hazards.
  • Plan more space for walking and don’t rely on furniture to walk.
  • Install guardrails.
  • Keep one rollator at the top and one at the bottom.
  • Wear flat shoes.
  • Limit walking when you are distracted.
  • Use walkers and other assistive devices as directed.

An occupational therapist can help patients recovering from stroke better manage their daily activities and maintain as much independence as possible.

Summary

If you think someone has had a stroke, call 911 immediately. The sooner the person can get medical attention, the better their chances of recovery. Symptoms to look for include a sagging face, weakness in the arms or legs, numbness in the limbs or face, difficulty speaking, or severe headache with no known cause.

When you call 911, inform the dispatcher that the person has symptoms of stroke, inform the medical staff when the symptoms of stroke have started, remain calm and give CPR only if the person has no pulse or stops to breathe.

A word from Verywell

Watching someone experience the symptoms of a stroke can be scary. But acting quickly is crucial to ensure that the person has the best chance of recovery. If you or someone you know has symptoms of stroke or decline in neurological function, call 911 as soon as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the common warning signs of a stroke?

    Signs of stroke to look for include sudden changes such as:

    • Numbness and weakness of the face, arms or legs on one or both sides of the body
    • Confused speech or difficulty speaking
    • Difficulty seeing in one or both eyes
    • Difficulty walking, loss of balance, or problems with coordination
    • Extreme headache of unknown cause

  • How can you prepare your home for a stroke?

    Here are some of the changes you can make at home following a stroke:

    • Improve floor coverings, such as removing rugs, which present tripping hazards
    • Allow more space to walk and not rely on furniture to walk
    • Install handrails
    • Keep one walker up and one down
    • Wear flat shoes
    • Limit walking when distracted
    • Use walkers and other assistive devices as prescribed

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