Pulmonary Embolism

Overview

Pulmonary embolism is the sudden blockage of an artery in the lung. Blood clots in the deep veins of the leg or pelvis (deep vein thrombosis, or DVT) are the most common cause. These blood clots can travel to the lungs.

Pulmonary embolism can be very serious. Because you have had one pulmonary embolism, you are at greater risk for having another one. But you can take steps to prevent another pulmonary embolism by following your doctor’s instructions.

You will probably take a prescription blood-thinning medicine to prevent blood clots. A blood thinner can stop a blood clot from growing larger and prevent new clots from forming.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of pulmonary embolism?

The most common symptoms of pulmonary embolism are:

  • Sudden shortness of breath.
  • Sudden, sharp chest pain that may get worse when you breathe deeply or cough.
  • A cough. The cough may bring up blood or pink, foamy mucus.

Pulmonary embolism can also cause other symptoms. These include:

  • A fast heart rate.
  • Wheezing.
  • Fainting.

If you have symptoms like these, you need to see a doctor right away, especially if they're sudden and severe. Quick treatment could save your life or reduce the risk of future problems.

Causes

What causes pulmonary embolism?

Pulmonary embolism is caused by a blocked artery in the lungs. The most common cause of such a blockage is a blood clot that forms in a deep vein in the leg and travels to the lungs, where it gets lodged in a smaller lung artery. Clots in the deep veins of the arms or pelvis can also lead to a pulmonary embolism.

In rare cases, pulmonary embolism may be caused by other substances. They include:

  • Small masses of infectious material.
  • Fat. It can be released into the bloodstream after some types of bone fractures, surgery, trauma, or severe burns.
  • Air bubbles or substances that get into the blood from trauma, surgery, or medical procedures.
  • Tumors caused by rapidly growing cancer cells.
  • Amniotic fluid.

Prevention

Risk Factors

Diagnosis

How is pulmonary embolism diagnosed?

It may be hard to diagnose pulmonary embolism. That's because the symptoms are like those of many other problems, such as a heart attack or pneumonia.

A doctor will do a physical exam and ask questions about your past health and your symptoms.

You might have tests to look for blood clots or to rule out other causes of your symptoms. Tests may include:

  • A chest X-ray. This may rule out an enlarged heart or pneumonia.
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG). This may help rule out a possible heart attack.
  • Blood tests, such as a D-dimer. D-dimer levels are usually high in people with pulmonary embolism.
  • A CT scan or CT angiogram. These tests can look for pulmonary embolism or for a blood clot that may cause it.
  • A ventilation-perfusion lung scan. This test scans for abnormal blood flow through the lungs.

Treatment

How is pulmonary embolism treated?

Doctors usually treat pulmonary embolism with medicines called anticoagulants. They are often called blood thinners, but they don't really thin the blood. They help prevent new clots and keep existing clots from growing.

Most people take a blood thinner for a few months. People at high risk for blood clots may take it for the rest of their lives.

If symptoms are severe and life-threatening, "clot-busting" drugs called thrombolytics may be used. These medicines can dissolve clots quickly, but they increase the risk of serious bleeding. Another option is surgery or a less invasive procedure to remove the clot (embolectomy).

Some people may have a filter put into the large vein (vena cava) that carries blood from the lower body to the heart. A vena cava filter may help keep blood clots from reaching the lungs. This filter might be used if you can't take an anticoagulant.

When to Call

Pulmonary embolism: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have shortness of breath.
  • You have chest pain.
  • You passed out (lost consciousness).
  • You cough up blood.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or worsening pain or swelling in your leg.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You do not get better as expected.

Self-Care

How can you care for yourself when you've had pulmonary embolism?

  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine. You will get more details on the specific medicines your doctor prescribes.
  • If you are taking a blood thinner, be sure you get instructions about how to take your medicine safely. Blood thinners can cause serious bleeding problems.
  • Try to walk several times a day. Walking helps keep blood moving in your legs. Before doing other types of exercise, ask your doctor what type and level of exercise is safe for you.
  • Take steps to help prevent blood clots in your legs. For example:
    • Exercise your lower leg muscles if you sit for long periods of time. Pump your feet up and down by pulling your toes up toward your knees then pointing them down. Repeat.
    • After an illness or surgery, try to get up and out of bed often. If you can't get out of bed, flex your feet every hour to keep the blood moving through your legs.
    • Take plenty of breaks when you travel. On long car trips, stop the car and walk around every hour or so. On the bus, plane, or train, get out of your seat and walk up and down the aisle every hour, if you can.
    • Wear compression stockings if your doctor recommends them.
    • Check with your doctor about whether you should use hormonal forms of birth control or hormone therapy. These may increase your risk of blood clots.
  • Have a healthy lifestyle. This includes being active, staying at a healthy weight, and not smoking.
  • Get vaccinated against COVID-19, the flu, and pneumonia.

Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.

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