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In the early stages, carotid artery disease often doesn't produce any signs or symptoms. The condition can go unnoticed until it's serious enough to cause a stroke. Learn the causes, signs and symptoms of carotid artery disease below.

What Causes Carotid Artery Disease?

Carotid artery disease seems to start when damage occurs to the inner layers of the carotid arteries. Major factors that contribute to damage include:

  • Smoking
  • High levels of certain fats and cholesterol in the blood
  • High blood pressure
  • High levels of sugar in the blood due to insulin resistance or diabetes

When damage occurs, your body starts a healing process. The healing may cause plaque to build up where the arteries are damaged.

The plaque in an artery can crack or rupture. If this happens, blood cell fragments called platelets will stick to the site of the injury and may clump together to form blood clots.

The buildup of plaque or blood clots can severely narrow or block the carotid arteries. This limits the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your brain, which can cause a stroke.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Carotid Artery Disease?

Bruit

During a physical exam, your doctor may listing to your carotid arteries with a stethoscope. They may hear a whooshing sound called a bruit. This sound may suggest changed or reduced blood flow due to plaque buildup. To find out more, your doctor may recommend tests.

Transient Ischemic Attack (Mini-Stroke)

For some people, having a transient ischemic attack (TIA), or "mini-stroke," is the first sign of carotid artery disease. During a mini-stroke, you may have some or all of the symptoms of a stroke. However, the symptoms usually go away on their own within 24 hours.

Stroke and mini-stroke symptoms may include:

  • A sudden, severe headache with no known cause
  • Dizziness or loss of balance
  • Inability to move one or more of your limbs
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • sudden weakness or numbness in the face or limbs, often on just one side of the body
  • Trouble speaking or understanding speech

Even if the symptoms stop quickly, call 9-1-1 for emergency help. Do not drive yourself to the hospital. It's important to get checked and to get treatment started as soon as possible.

A mini-stroke is a warning sign that you're at high risk of having a stroke. You shouldn't ignore these symptoms.

Stroke

The symptoms of a stroke are the same as those of a mini-stroke, but the results are not. A stroke can cause lasting brain damage; long-term disability, such as vision or speech problems or paralysis; or death. Most people who have strokes have not previously had warning mini-strokes.

Getting treatment for a stroke right away is very important. You have the best chance for full recovery if treatment to open a blocked artery is given within 4 hours of symptom onset. The sooner treatment occurs, the better your chances of recovery.

Make those close to you aware of stoke symptoms and the need for urgent action. Learning the signs and symptoms of a stroke will allow you to help yourself or someone close to you lower the risk of brain damage or death due to a stroke.

Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.​

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