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A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot that affects the lungs. Typically, a blood clot travels from another area in the body before becoming lodged in one of the arteries that supply blood to the lungs.
A pulmonary embolism can damage part of the lung due to restricted blood flow, decrease oxygen levels in the blood, as well as damage other organs (NHLBI). Large or multiple blood clots can be fatal.
The blockage can be life threatening, but immediate emergency treatment greatly increases your chances of avoiding permanent lung damage.
Blood clots can form for a variety of reasons. Pulmonary embolisms are most often caused by deep vein thrombosis, a condition in which blood clots form in veins deep in the body. The blood clots that most often cause pulmonary embolisms typically begin in the legs or arms.
Factors that increase a person’s risks of deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism include:
Symptoms of a pulmonary embolism depend on the size of the clot and the location in your lung where it becomes lodged.
The most common symptom of a pulmonary embolism is shortness of breath. This may be gradual or sudden. If you experience sudden shortness of breath, you should seek medical attention immediately.
Other symptoms of a pulmonary embolism include:
If you notice one or more of these symptoms, especially shortness of breath, you should seek medical attention immediately.
In some cases, a pulmonary embolism can be difficult to diagnose. This is especially true if you have an underlying lung or heart condition, such as lung disease or high blood pressure.
When you first see your doctor about your symptoms, he or she will ask about your overall health and any pre-existing conditions you may have as part of a complete health profile.
Your doctor will typically perform one or more of the following tests to discover the cause of your symptoms:
Your treatment for a pulmonary embolism depends on the size and location of the blood clot. If the problem is small and caught early, your doctor may opt for medication as the primary treatment. Some drugs can break up small clots.
Drugs your doctor may use include:
Surgery may be required to remove problematic clots, especially those that restrict the blood flow to the lungs or heart. Some surgical procedures your doctor may use in the case of a pulmonary embolism include (Mayo):
After you’ve been properly treated for a pulmonary embolism at the hospital, you’ll be advised to treat the underlying cause. This is typically deep vein thrombosis.
You’ll most likely be put on anticoagulant medications, such as heparin and warfarin to prevent blood clots from returning. You may also be given compression stockings—similar to really tight socks—or another device to prevent clots from forming in your legs.
Regularly exercising your legs will also be a key component of therapy after a pulmonary embolism. Your doctor will give you complete instructions on how to care for yourself to prevent future blood clots.
Written by: Brian Krans
Published on Aug 02, 2012
Updated on Feb 15, 2013
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD
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