The recovery time for a blood clot in the lungs, or pulmonary embolism, can vary. People may need to stay in the hospital and take medications to prevent further clots for 3 months or more.
This information comes from the American Lung Association.
Most people make a full recovery after a pulmonary embolism, but some may experience long-term symptoms, such as shortness of breath. Complications can delay recovery and result in longer hospital stays.
In this article, we look at the rough time frames for pulmonary embolism recovery, how to help the body recover, and ways to reduce the risk of future clots.
The time it takes to completely recover from a pulmonary embolism can be several months or years, depending on the circumstances. However, people typically start to notice improvements in their symptoms once treatment begins.
The time a person spends in the hospital depends on how severe the clot is and whether the person’s body is dissolving the clot on its own. Some people may not need to stay in the hospital at all, while others may require 1 week or more.
A 2018 study suggests some people with low risk pulmonary embolism may not require hospitalization. The study looked at 200 adults with acute low risk pulmonary embolism.
The study participants stayed in the hospital under observation for 12–24 hours, before undergoing outpatient treatment with blood thinning medication.
After a 90-day follow-up, no deaths or repeat blood clots had occurred. One participant experienced significant bleeding. Overall, however, participants reported a high satisfaction level with the care.
After a pulmonary embolism, people may need to take blood thinning medication, or anticoagulants, for 3 months or longer.
People will need to take blood thinners exactly as prescribed until a doctor decides they are no longer at risk of another blood clot. In some cases, people may need to take these medications for much longer than this or for the rest of their lives.
Anticoagulants do not dissolve the existing clot, but they prevent more from forming. In most cases, the body then breaks down the existing clot on its own.
Recovery from blood clots in the lungs can involve making some changes to a person’s diet, lifestyle, and daily activities. These include:
People will need to speak with their doctor about when it is safe for them to exercise again after experiencing a pulmonary embolism and what types of exercise are best.
If people are taking blood thinning medication, it is important they do not overexert themselves during physical activity.
People taking anticoagulants may need to avoid certain foods that can interact with their medication. This includes foods that are high in vitamin K, such as:
People can discuss this, as well as possible interactions and side effects of anticoagulants, with a doctor or pharmacist.
According to the Society for Vascular Surgery, after a blood clot forms, the risk of further problems or complications is highest during the first 7 days. If people need to travel after experiencing a blood clot, they may need to wait a few weeks.
A doctor can help decide when it is safe to travel again. During long journeys, people can move every 2 hours for at least 5 minutes and drink plenty of fluids to help with circulation.
People can help prevent developing any further health issues or another pulmonary embolism by understanding their risk factors and taking care to avoid or manage them wherever possible. Risk factors include:
- lack of physical activity over long periods of time
- a family history of blood clots
- cancer and cancer treatments
- hormone replacement therapy or birth control containing high amounts of estrogen
- being 55 or older
- lung or heart disease
To lower their risk of further blood clots, people can take the following steps:
- quitting smoking
- reaching or maintaining a moderate weight by following a balanced diet and addressing any underlying causes of excess body weight
- exercising regularly
- getting up and moving around every 2–3 hours when sitting or lying for long stretches of time
If people have to undergo long periods of bed rest, they can take steps to reduce the risk of clots by:
- wearing compression stockings or cuffs around the legs
- raising the lower end of the bed, so that the feet are slightly elevated
- trying small movements to keep blood flowing in the legs, such as flexing and stretching the feet, if possible
- moving around as soon as it is possible
Most people will make a full recovery after a pulmonary embolism and do not experience long-term complications.
However, some people develop:
- post-thrombotic syndrome, which causes swelling, pain, and skin discoloration
- chronic damage to the lungs, or chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension (CTEPH), a rare complication that occurs when scar tissue in the arteries blocks or narrows them
- further clots
- mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder, due to the experience of having a pulmonary embolism
If a person notices any new physical or mental symptoms develop after a pulmonary embolism, they should discuss these with a doctor. A therapist may be able to provide support for people experiencing emotional distress.
People should contact their doctor straight away if they experience any signs of another blood clot, such as:
- unusual swelling, often in one leg or arm
- tenderness or pain in the leg, which may feel similar to a cramp
- skin discoloration, which may appear red, blue, or purple
- an area of the leg or arm that feels warm to the touch
People should call 911 if they experience any symptoms of a pulmonary embolism:
- sudden shortness of breath
- sharp, stabbing pain in the back or chest
- pain worsening with deep breaths
- rapid heart rate
- unexplained cough or cough with blood and mucus
People should also seek immediate medical attention if they experience excessive bleeding, as this could indicate that their dosage of blood thinning medication is too high.
People with breathing difficulties 6 months after having a pulmonary embolism should speak with a doctor. This can be a sign of CTEPH.
Recovery from blood clots in the lungs can vary from person to person. Many people recover in several months. During this time, they may need to keep taking medication to prevent additional blood clots. Sometimes, people need to take medication indefinitely.
A doctor may advise that people avoid long journeys, foods rich in vitamin K, and strenuous exercise while they recover from a pulmonary embolism.