While people tend to associate holiday health hazards with the long-term effects of all the junk food and lack of exercise on their waistline, there is a more immediate, life-threatening danger for thousands of Americans this time of year: stroke.

A stroke occurs when a blood vessel in the brain either becomes blocked or ruptures. It is a leading cause of disability and death in the United States.

“Studies have shown that there are typically more strokes around the holidays,” explained Stephanie Milam, BSN, RN, CEN, stroke coordinator for Baylor Scott & White Medical Center - Waxahachie.

The precise reason for the uptick in strokes around the holidays is not settled science. However, many healthcare professionals believe that the stress of the holidays leads to higher blood pressure, which is a crucial risk factor for stroke.


Most strokes occur in people ages 65 to 85, but anyone can be at risk. Symptoms of a potential stroke include numbness or weakness of the face, arms or legs (especially on one side of the body), sudden confusion or difficulty speaking, sudden dizziness, sudden severe headache, and trouble seeing.

“The acronym F.A.S.T. is the most important thing people can remember,” says Milam, referring to the acronym to help people recognize and react to a potential stroke:

F – face drooping

A – arm weakness

S – speech problems

T – time to call 911

“With a stroke, time matters,” stressed Milam. “If you are having a stroke, you only have a three-hour window from when the symptoms start to get the medication that can prevent even more serious, possibly permanent damage to the brain.” If someone is having a stroke, it is best to get to the hospital as soon as symptoms start and to remember the time that symptoms began.

Although time is a critical factor, people should still call 911 rather than drive the person experiencing symptoms to the closest hospital. That’s because getting the right diagnosis and treatment is essential. Paramedics can begin this process before even arriving at the hospital. Moreover, not every hospital has the same capabilities to treat stroke. Paramedics can help ensure potential stroke patients are taken to the hospital best equipped to manage stroke and not merely the closest.

For instance, Baylor Scott & White – Waxahachie holds Advanced Certification for Primary Stroke Centers, which is a national certification recognizing the hospital’s commitment to having the processes, people and tools in place to provide quality care to stroke patients.

“As a Primary Stroke Center, we’ve invested the time and resources into stroke care, and to getting patients the medication, they need sooner,” according to Milam.

During the holidays – or any time of year – recognizing the signs of stroke and knowing what to do could prove to be the best, and longest lasting, gift of all.