Knowing the Signs of Strokes and Heart Attacks: What to Do When They Occur

Jun 6, 2024

Understanding the signs of strokes and heart attacks is crucial for timely intervention and can save lives. Recognizing the symptoms early and knowing how to respond can significantly impact the outcomes for those affected. This comprehensive guide will delve into the signs of strokes and heart attacks and provide actionable steps to take when they occur.

What Are Strokes and Heart Attacks?


A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted or reduced, preventing brain tissue from getting enough oxygen and nutrients. Brain cells begin to die within minutes. There are two main types of strokes:

  • Ischemic Stroke: This is the most common type, caused by a blockage in an artery supplying blood to the brain.
  • Hemorrhagic Stroke: This occurs when a blood vessel in the brain bursts, leading to bleeding in or around the brain.

Heart Attacks

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, happens when the flow of blood to the heart is blocked. The blockage is often due to a buildup of fat, cholesterol, and other substances that form a plaque in the arteries. This plaque can rupture and form a clot that blocks blood flow, damaging or destroying part of the heart muscle.

Recognizing the Signs of Strokes and Heart Attacks

Signs of a Stroke

Identifying a stroke quickly is essential. Use the acronym FAST to remember the most common signs:

  • Face drooping: One side of the face may droop or become numb. Ask the person to smile and see if the smile is uneven.
  • Arm weakness: One arm may become weak or numb. Ask the person to raise both arms and see if one arm drifts downward.
  • Speech difficulty: Speech may become slurred or hard to understand. Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence and check if they can do it correctly.
  • Time to call emergency services: If someone shows any of these symptoms, even if they go away, call emergency services immediately.

Other stroke symptoms include sudden numbness or weakness in the legs, sudden confusion or trouble understanding speech, sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes, sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination, and sudden severe headache with no known cause.

Signs of a Heart Attack

Heart attack symptoms can vary between individuals, but common signs include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort: This is often described as a feeling of pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain in the center or left side of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back.
  • Upper body pain: Pain or discomfort may radiate to the shoulders, arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath: This can occur with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other symptoms: These may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness.

Women may experience different symptoms than men, such as shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

What to Do When a Stroke or Heart Attack Occurs

Responding to a Stroke

  1. Call Emergency Services: Time is critical. Call emergency services immediately if you suspect someone is having a stroke.
  2. Note the Time: It’s important to note when the first symptoms appeared. This information can help healthcare providers decide the best treatment.
  3. Stay with the Person: Keep the person calm and comfortable. Do not give them anything to eat or drink.
  4. Monitor Symptoms: If the person loses consciousness and stops breathing, begin CPR if you are trained to do so.

Responding to a Heart Attack

  1. Call Emergency Services: Just like with a stroke, call emergency services immediately if you suspect someone is having a heart attack.
  2. Stay Calm and Reassure: Keep the person calm and seated. Reassure them that help is on the way.
  3. Chew and Swallow Aspirin: If the person is not allergic to aspirin and has no history of ulcers, have them chew and swallow an aspirin (unless contraindicated by emergency dispatch instructions).
  4. Use CPR if Necessary: If the person loses consciousness and stops breathing, begin CPR immediately if you are trained.
  5. Use an Automated External Defibrillator (AED): If available, follow the instructions on the AED device. This can be lifesaving.

Preventing Strokes and Heart Attacks

Lifestyle Changes

Adopting a healthy lifestyle can significantly reduce the risk of strokes and heart attacks. Key changes include:

  • Eating a Balanced Diet: Focus on a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Limit intake of saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, sodium, and added sugars.
  • Regular Exercise: Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, such as running.
  • Maintaining a Healthy Weight: Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
  • Quitting Smoking: Smoking is a major risk factor for both strokes and heart attacks. Seek help to quit if necessary.
  • Managing Stress: Chronic stress can contribute to heart disease and stroke. Find healthy ways to manage stress, such as exercise, meditation, or talking to a mental health professional.

Medical Management

  • Control Blood Pressure: High blood pressure is a significant risk factor. Monitor your blood pressure regularly and take prescribed medications if needed.
  • Manage Diabetes: Keep blood sugar levels under control through diet, exercise, and medication if necessary.
  • Lower Cholesterol Levels: High cholesterol can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries. Follow your doctor’s advice on diet, exercise, and medications to manage cholesterol.
  • Regular Check-ups: Routine medical check-ups can help identify and manage risk factors early.

Knowing the signs of strokes and heart attacks and understanding what to do when they occur can save lives. Immediate response is crucial, so always call emergency services if you suspect someone is experiencing a stroke or heart attack. By recognizing the symptoms and acting quickly, you can help ensure the best possible outcome for the affected individual.

In addition to being prepared for emergencies, adopting a healthy lifestyle and managing medical conditions can significantly reduce the risk of strokes and heart attacks. Educate yourself, stay informed, and prioritize your health to enjoy a long and healthy life.

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