Pulmonary Embolism

What is Pulmonary Embolism?

A Pulmonary Embolism is a blood clot in one of your lungs’ pulmonary arteries. Most of the time, the clot does not form in the lung but travels there from the leg or another part of the body. Once the clot gets wedged into a pulmonary artery, it can block all blood flow and cause the portion of lung that is cut off to die.

Depending on the severity of the blockage and how much of the lung is without blood, a pulmonary embolism can be life threatening and requires emergency medical assistance.

People with heart disease and some types of cancer may be more likely to form the types of clots that can travel to the lungs. Other causes include being immobile for long periods of time, such as on bed rest or even sitting down on a long flight. Surgeries can cause blood clots to form as well, so many surgical patients are given a blood thinner to prevent issues. Smoking, carrying excess weight and taking birth control medications can also increase your risk of developing a blood clot that can travel to the lung.

What are the Symptoms of Pulmonary Embolism?

Most cases of pulmonary embolism include breathing difficulties. Shortness of breath is a key symptom. You may also experience coughing and wheezing, and chest pain.

You may develop a blue tint to their skin from lack of oxygen, and have sweating, dizziness and lightheadedness. A rapid or inconsistent heart rate can also occur.

Pulmonary Embolism Causes

Pulmonary embolism is caused by a blockage in one of the blood vessels in the lungs. Usually, a blood clot is to blame for the blockage. In most cases, blood clots form in veins which are located deep in the legs, which is a condition called deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

DVT may be caused by:

  • Inherited disorder which affects the way blood clots
  • Prolonged bed rest
  • Prolonged periods of sitting, such as when driving or flying
  • Injury or surgery to the veins
  • Birth control pills
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Heart failure

In some instances, the blockage which causes pulmonary embolism may be created by another substance. It could be collagen or another tissue which may have entered the bloodstream via an injury, or it might be part of a tumor from a nearby area. Sometimes bone marrow from a broken bone can enter the bloodstream and cause a blockage. Finally, air bubbles in the blood, which can occur in deep sea divers when they surface too quickly, can also cause pulmonary embolism.

How is Pulmonary Embolism Treated?

Emergency treatment to remove a clot can involve giving clot-dissolving medications called thrombolytics, or surgery, where a catheter is inserted into the artery and positioned to move or break up the clot. In less serious cases, your doctor may prescribe blood thinners to break up the clots and reduce the risk of more clots forming.

Once you have been diagnosed with pulmonary embolism, your doctor may want to run additional tests to ensure you don’t develop additional blockages. You may be advised to eat a healthy diet, quit smoking, exercise regularly and wear compression socks that improve blood flow in your legs.

Pulmonary Embolism Prevention

To prevent pulmonary embolism when sitting or laying down for long periods of time, try to make the legs active at regular intervals. If driving long distances, take regular breaks where you can get out of the car and walk around for a short period of time to get blood pumping throughout the legs.

If you’re a passenger in a car, bus or plane, flex your ankles regularly and take advantage of frequent rest stops. Compression stockings, which work to constrict the legs and encourage blood to flow more easily, can also be helpful for long journeys, or for those who are on bed rest.

Quitting smoking is also a great way to reduce your risk of blood clots and pulmonary embolism. This is particularly important for those who have a family history or medical history of DVT. For those who are overweight or obese, losing weight and reaching a healthy BMI will also reduce the risk of pulmonary embolism.

Last Reviewed:
October 10, 2016
Last Updated:
January 17, 2018