Home / Conditions / Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary Embolism

What is a pulmonary embolism?

A blood clot that travels through the blood vessels is called an embolus. A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot that blocks an artery in your lungs. It can be a life-threatening problem.

How does it occur?

Inside the body, blood is normally a fluid. Occasionally, something goes wrong with the clotting system and blood clots form where they are not supposed to -- inside the blood vessels, usually in leg veins. The clot may form because you sit for long periods or have injured your leg, but often the cause is not known.

Clots tend to break into pieces. These pieces may float in the bloodstream until they block a blood vessel. A pulmonary embolus is a blood clot that breaks off from the wall of a vein and travels to the lungs.

Blood clots may form more easily in your blood vessels if your blood is flowing very slowly through your veins or if disease or medicines you are taking increase the tendency to clot.

Your risk of developing blood clots increases if:

Back to the top

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of a pulmonary embolism may include:

Back to the top

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine you and take your medical history. To confirm the diagnosis and determine how severe any damage is, your provider will order tests and scans, which may include:

Back to the top

How is it treated?

You usually need to be in the hospital. Your treatment depends on the results of lab tests, how sick you are and where the embolus comes from. Most pulmonary embolisms can be treated with blood thinners (anticoagulants). These medicines stop the clot from getting bigger and allow your body to try to dissolve the blood clot. They also stop more clots from forming. You will start taking a blood thinner by IV or by injection in the hospital. You will continue taking a different kind of blood thinner, usually a pill, after you leave.

You may need a thrombolytic drug. This type of drug is a powerful clot dissolver that works quickly to dissolve the embolus. Because this medicine makes it much harder for your blood to clot, you must be watched carefully for too much bleeding during your treatment.

If you are very ill, surgery to remove the embolus from your artery may be your only chance for survival. The surgery will improve blood flow through your lungs.

If you keep having more emboli, you may have surgery to put a small plastic filter in the large abdominal vein that returns blood to the heart. The filter can trap blood clots and prevent them from reaching your lungs.

Back to the top

How long will the effects last?

How long the effects last depends on:

Many of the symptoms will get better with treatment, but you may have less energy and stamina for several weeks. Most people need to take blood thinners for three to six months. People who have a very high risk of getting more clots may need to take blood thinners for life.

Back to the top

How can I take care of myself?

Back to the top

What can I do to help prevent a pulmonary embolism?

Back to the top