UNC Health Care
graphic of a microscopic view of blood clot in a pink brain

Stroke Symptoms and Risks for Women

Each year, 55,000 more women than men experience a stroke, according to the National Stroke Association. Where stroke is the third-leading cause of death for women, it’s the fifth-leading cause of death for men. And “it’s not just because women live longer,” says UNC REX Healthcare neurohospitalist Catherine Lavigne, MD.

Women face risk factors that men don’t, and they might experience the symptoms in a different way. For women, understanding these differences can be key in recognizing a stroke and getting help.

The Heart Attack of the Brain

Blood carries necessary oxygen to the cells in your brain via blood vessels. A stroke occurs when a blood vessel is suddenly blocked or ruptures, causing bleeding into the surrounding area. When this occurs, the surrounding brain regions lose their supply of oxygen, which causes the brain cells to die.

“It’s like a heart attack in the brain,” Dr. Lavigne says.

Symptoms of Stroke in Women

Some symptoms of stroke are universal, like facial drooping and slurred speech. But some signs are unique to women.

“Women have more nontraditional symptoms more frequently than men, including altered mental states, not thinking clearly or not behaving normally,” Dr. Lavigne says.

Other nontraditional stroke symptoms in women include:

  • Loss of consciousness or fainting
  • Weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion or unresponsiveness
  • Sudden changes in behavior
  • Agitation
  • Hallucination
  • Nausea, vomiting or hiccups
  • Pain
  • Seizures

Risk Factors and Prevention

Like symptoms, there are risk factors that apply to men and women, including age, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, smoking and atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm disorder.

There are also risk factors unique to female bodies, including:

  • Taking birth control that contains estrogen
  • Being pregnant
  • Using hormone replacement therapy

How to Prevent Stroke

According to Dr. Lavigne, “Women and men need to take the same measures for preventing stroke.” These include:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Making sure hypertension is under control
  • Keeping diabetes under control
  • Managing high cholesterol
  • Quitting smoking
  • Never missing a dose of any medication your doctor has prescribed for stroke prevention

What to Do if You Think You’re Having a Stroke

If you are having stroke symptoms, call 911 immediately. That way, emergency medical personnel can start working on you on the way to the hospital.

“The sooner people get to the emergency department, the more options we have and the better the chance of preventing the stroke from worsening into a big stroke,” Dr. Lavigne says. “And that’s whether you’re a woman or a man. That’s the message for everybody.”


Take a free online stroke risk screening. It takes seven minutes and consists of a few simple questions. Once completed, you’ll be provided with a report of your risk factors and recommendations for improving and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.