A pulmonary embolism is a blockage in the pulmonary artery that supplies blood to the lungs. The blockage, usually caused by a blood clot, impairs oxygenation of the blood and can damage the heart. This means it can be life threatening.

The word “embolism” comes from the Greek émbolos, meaning “stopper” or “plug.”

In a pulmonary embolism, the embolus forms in one part of the body and circulates throughout the blood supply. It then blocks the blood flowing through a vessel in another part of the body, namely the lungs. Blood clots often develop in the leg, which is called deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

This article lists the symptoms of pulmonary embolism and outlines its diagnosis and treatment options.

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Although the exact number of those affected by pulmonary embolism or DVT is unknown, it may affect as many as 900,000 people in the United States each year.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute notes that a person may not experience any symptoms of a pulmonary embolism. Others may experience symptoms that develop within seconds to minutes or over days to weeks. The symptoms can also start mild and become more severe.

Common symptoms include:

  • shortness of breath
  • quick breathing
  • pain when breathing deeply
  • high heart rate

Less common symptoms include:

  • coughing, coughing up blood
  • anxiety or feelings of dread
  • fainting
  • lightheadedness
  • sweating

Severe symptoms call for immediate emergency medical assistance. More severe cases may result in shock, loss of consciousness, cardiac arrest, and death.

Treatments for a pulmonary embolism aim to:

  • stop the clot from growing
  • prevent new clots from forming
  • destroy or remove any existing clot

The main treatment option for pulmonary embolism is anticoagulation.

A doctor will prescribe anticoagulants or blood-thinning medications, such as warfarin, heparin, or direct oral anticoagulants, to stop blood clots from getting bigger and prevent new clots from forming.

They may administer an anticoagulant as soon as they suspect a pulmonary embolism before they have made a definitive diagnosis.

A person will then need to take anticoagulants for approximately 3 months or longer.

For large blood clots causing severe symptoms or complications, a doctor may prescribe an intravenous thrombolytic. However, these carry a high risk of excessive bleeding. Thrombolytics include Activase, Retavase, and Eminase.

In emergencies, a person may require surgery, such as catheter-assisted blood clot removal. A catheter-assisted blood clot removal requires a surgeon inserting a flexible tube to reach the blood clot in the lung. They can then insert a tool to break up the clot or administer medication.

A pulmonary embolism occurs when an embolus, usually a blood clot, blocks the blood flowing through an artery that feeds the lungs.

A blood clot may start in an arm or leg, known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

After that, it breaks free and travels through the circulatory system toward the lungs. When the embolus is too large to pass through the small vessels, it forms a blockage.

This blockage stops blood from flowing into a part of the lung. This causes the affected section of the lung to die through lack of oxygen. The blood clot can also cause pressure to build in the right side of the heart, eventually causing heart failure.

Rarely, a pulmonary embolism can result from an embolus that is formed from fat droplets, amniotic fluid, or some other particle that enters the bloodstream.

The risk factors for developing a pulmonary embolism can be genetic or acquired.

Some acquired risk factors include:

  • long periods of inactivity or bed rest, such as:
    • bed rest for 3 days
    • traveling for more than 4 hours
  • having obesity
  • pregnancy and postpartum
  • cigarette smoking
  • taking estrogen-containing oral contraceptive pills
  • some cancers
  • catheters in the veins

To reduce the risk of developing a blood clot or pulmonary embolism, a person can:

  • wear flight socks or compression stockings when traveling
  • wear loose-fitting clothing
  • drink water regularly
  • take part in regular physical activity
  • take breaks from sitting
  • bend and straighten the legs, feet, and toes every 30 minutes if they are sitting
  • avoid sitting for long periods
  • avoid crossing the legs when sitting
  • avoid smoking

A person undergoing surgery should discuss a plan to prevent blood clots with a healthcare professional. They will also advise on how to prevent blood clots during the recovery period.

Those with a high risk of developing pulmonary embolism may require anticoagulant medications.

To reach a diagnosis, the doctor will look at the person’s history and consider whether they are likely to have an embolism. They will carry out a physical examination. Doctors may find it challenging to make a diagnosis because other conditions have similar symptoms.

The doctor may perform the following tests:

  • Computed tomography pulmonary angiography: This is an imaging test to find blood clots in the lungs.
  • Blood tests: A doctor will test for D-dimer in the blood, which is a substance is released when a clot dissolves. High levels indicate a possible blood clot, which can lead to a pulmonary embolism.
  • Ventilation-perfusion scan: This measures the airflow and blood flow in the lungs.
  • Pulmonary angiography: This is an imaging test that requires inserting a tube into the blood vessel and using X-rays and contrast dye to find clots. Pulmonary angiography can confirm a pulmonary embolism diagnosis.

A doctor may also perform other imaging tests so they can look at the veins and the function of the heart and lungs.

With effective and timely treatment, most people who experience a pulmonary embolism can make a full recovery. However, the condition can carry a high risk of fatality without timely intervention.

A person’s outlook can also be affected depending on the underlying condition that caused the blood clot or pulmonary embolism.

A pulmonary embolism is a blockage in the pulmonary artery. The pulmonary artery supplies blood to the lungs. The blockage, which usually occurs due to a blood clot, prevents the oxygen from reaching the lungs.

Anyone experiencing symptoms of a pulmonary embolism should seek urgent medical help. This is because timely treatment and diagnosis can improve a person’s outlook. Common symptoms include shortness of breath, rapid breathing, high heart rate, and pain when breathing deeply.

Treatment often involves anticoagulant medications. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary.