How often are strokes fatal?

Most strokes are not fatal with proper medical care. The most severe strokes—those that damage large amounts of brain—might be fatal due to brain swelling in the days after the stroke.

Stroke is one of the leading causes of death. It’s the fifth leading cause of death in the US and it’s the leading cause of chronic disability. Neurological illness can be devastating. Doctors try to save lives and reduce the possibility of disability.

Stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death in the US. Mild and medium strokes aren’t usually fatal in the near-term, meaning you’re not likely to die in the first week or even the first couple of months after a stroke. However, after a mild or medium stroke you might get a complication like a blood clot in one of your legs that causes a pulmonary embolism that kills you, or a swallowing problem that makes you choke to death.

If you have a stroke it usually means there’s a serious vascular problem you need to get help with. The longer-term prognosis for medium and small strokes will correlate to how well you can address your problems and take care of your health.

Larger strokes are frequently fatal in the first few days or weeks. Some people develop brain swelling that can put them into a coma. Also with larger strokes, usually a patient is bedridden, and you get a whole host of complications when you become bedridden: Blood clots in leg veins, bedsores, pneumonias, stiffening of limbs. The body starts to rapidly break down. Everything can go against you. Sometimes people with larger strokes end up on breathing machines or need brain surgery to relieve pressure.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Saver, MD

Stroke can be fatal. In fact, stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Strokes result in death 17 percent of the time. So one-in-six strokes are fatal. The remaining five-in-six strokes are nonfatal but can cause permanent weakness, visual loss, language and other cognitive deficits, and other impairments.

Strokes can be of 2 types: ischemic (not enough blood supply to part of the brain due to an occluded artery) or hemorrhagic (due to breakage of a an artery of the brain most commonly due to hypertension, aneurysms, and AVMs). Not all strokes are fatal. 

The symptoms caused by a stroke will depend mostly on the location within the brain and the size of the stroke. Strokes in the brainstem ("switchboard" in the back of the brain) are the most dangerous. Larger strokes cause more symptoms. In hemorrhagic strokes caused by an aneurysm rupture, the risk of death is high (up to 50 percent). 

Patients have to be monitored for brain swelling after a stroke occurs since that is the potential cause of death. The recovery phase starts after the initial period of brain swelling caused by the stroke is over. Rehabilitation, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy are important for an optimal recovery after a stroke.  

Dr. Steven A. Meyers, MD
Diagnostic Radiologist

Stroke is a very serious medical emergency that can be fatal. Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States but prompt emergency treatment can reduce the risk of death and long term disability.

A stroke is a serious condition that can be fatal. Strokes are the third leading cause of death in the United States, and about 50 percent of people that suffer a hemorrhagic stroke die in a matter of days. Early treatment is important to not only save a person's life, but to also reduce permanent damage to the brain.

Continue Learning about Stroke

Is It a Headache or a Stroke?
Is It a Headache or a Stroke?
When you get a headache, you probably take aspirin and try to shrug it off. But sometimes headaches are warning signs of something more serious like a...
Read More
If I'm at risk for a stroke, how should I prepare?
Natalia S. Rost, MDNatalia S. Rost, MD
If you are at risk of having a stroke, prepare for an emergency by displaying important phone number...
More Answers
5 Ways to Lower Your Stroke Risk Now
5 Ways to Lower Your Stroke Risk Now5 Ways to Lower Your Stroke Risk Now5 Ways to Lower Your Stroke Risk Now5 Ways to Lower Your Stroke Risk Now
About 80 percent of strokes are preventable—if you make little changes to your day. Learn about these five easy ways to reduce stroke risk and get hea...
Start Slideshow
What Happens with a Stroke?
What Happens with a Stroke?

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.