Carotid artery disease is also known as carotid artery stenosis. This term refers to a narrowing of the carotid arteries, which is usually caused by the buildup of calcium or fatty substances and cholesterol deposits, called plaque. Carotid artery occlusion refers to complete blockage of the artery. Some risk factors include high blood pressure, diabetes, tobacco use, high blood cholesterol and other modifiable risk factors.
Carotid artery disease develops slowly. The first sign that you have the condition may be a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA). A TIA is a temporary shortage of blood flow to your brain. When the carotid arteries are obstructed, you are also at an increased risk for a stroke. Stroke deprives your brain of oxygen. Stroke is the most common cause of death and the leading cause of permanent disability in the United States.
In early stages, carotid artery disease often doesn’t produce signs or symptoms. The condition may go unnoticed until it’s serious enough to deprive your brain of blood, causing a stroke or TIA.
Signs and symptoms of a stroke or TIA include:
- Sudden numbness or weakness in the face or limbs, often on only one side of the body
- Sudden trouble speaking and understanding
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Sudden dizziness or loss of balance
- Sudden, severe headache with no known cause
Seek emergency care if you experience any signs or symptoms of stroke. Even if they last only a short while and then you feel normal, see a provider right away. You may have experienced a TIA, an important sign that you’re at risk of a full-blown stroke.
Factors that increase your risk of carotid artery disease include:
- High blood pressure
- Tobacco use
- High blood-fat levels
- Family history
- Sleep apnea
- Lack of exercise
Treatment of carotid artery disease usually involves a combination of lifestyle changes, medication and sometimes surgery. To prevent or slow the progression of carotid artery disease, consider these suggestions:
- Avoid smoking. Within a few years of quitting, a former smoker’s risk of stroke is similar to a nonsmoker’s.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight contributes to other risk factors, such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and sleep apnea.
- Limit cholesterol and fat.
- Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. They contain nutrients such as potassium, folate and antioxidants, which may protect against a TIA or stroke.
- Limit salt. Excess salt (sodium) may increase blood pressure in people who are sensitive to sodium. Experts recommend that healthy adults eat less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise can lower your blood pressure, increase your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol — the “good” cholesterol — and improve the overall health of your blood vessels and heart. It also helps you lose weight, control diabetes and reduce stress.
- Limit alcohol.
- Control chronic conditions. Managing conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure helps protect your arteries.