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The blood carries oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. The carotid arteries are large blood vessels that carry blood to the brain. Certain health problems can make the inside of the carotid arteries narrow and rough. Over time, this damage increases the chances of having a stroke (sudden loss of brain function).
In a healthy carotid artery, the inside of the artery is open. The lining of the artery wall is also smooth. This lets blood flow freely from the heart to the brain. The brain gets all the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function well.
Health factors such as high blood pressure, smoking, and diabetes can damage artery walls and make them rough. This allows cholesterol and other particles in the blood to stick to the artery walls and form plaque (fatty deposits). As the plaque builds up, it can narrow the artery. Blood may also collect on the plaque and form blood clots.
A stroke can occur when plaque in the carotid artery ruptures. This can allow small pieces of plaque to break off into the bloodstream. At the same time, rupture can produce more blood clots. Fragments of plaque and tiny blood clots (called emboli) can flow in the blood until they get stuck in a small blood vessel in the brain. This blocks blood flow to a portion of the brain and causes a stroke.