Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

brand logo

Am Fam Physician. 1999;60(8):2341

See related article on ischemic strokes and transient ischemic attacks.

What is an ischemic stroke?

An ischemic stroke happens when a part of the brain doesn't get enough blood. Without enough blood, that part of the brain doesn't work right. The cause is usually a blood clot in an artery.

What is a transient ischemic attack?

A transient ischemic attack (sometimes called a TIA or a mini-stroke) happens the same way. The difference is that the symptoms of a TIA go away in 24 hours.

About one third of people who have a TIA have a stroke later. For this reason, you need to see your doctor quickly if you think you've had a TIA.

What is my risk of having a TIA or a stroke?

The following factors may increase your risk of having a TIA or a stroke:

  • High blood pressure

  • Cigarette smoking

  • Drinking a lot of alcohol on a regular basis

  • Abnormal heart rhythm (for example, atrial fibrillation)

  • High cholesterol levels

  • Diabetes

  • Using birth control pills when you are over 35 years old and smoking

If you have any of these risk factors, talk to your family doctor. Keep in mind that you could have a stroke even if you don't have any of these risk factors.

What can I do to lower my risk of TIA and stroke?

Your doctor can decide if you need medicine to help prevent a TIA or stroke.

If you have high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol levels or an abnormal heart rhythm, be sure to take any medicines that your doctor prescribes.

If you smoke or drink a lot of alcohol, you need to stop. Ask your doctor for help in making these life changes.

What are the signs of a TIA or a stroke?

A TIA and a stroke have the same warning signs. These signs usually start suddenly and can include any of the following:

  • Weakness or numbness, especially on one side of your body, or one arm or leg

  • Loss of vision or dimming of vision, especially in one eye

  • Trouble speaking clearly

  • Confusion

  • A very bad headache with no known cause

  • Dizziness, unsteadiness or falling, with no known reason

If you have any of these signs, call 911 or go to a hospital emergency department right away. New treatments can reduce the effects of a stroke, but you have to take them within a few hours after the signs begin.

Continue Reading

More in AFP

Copyright © 1999 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP.  See permissions for copyright questions and/or permission requests.