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Pulmonary Embolism

A pulmonary embolism is when a blood clot lodges in one of the arteries of the lung. It can occur when a blood clot forms in a deep vein in the leg (deep vein thrombosis) and travels to the lung.

The heart and lungs can become permanently damaged if a pulmonary embolism is left untreated. The condition can also cause sudden death.

Pulmonary embolism symptoms

Symptoms of pulmonary embolism often begin suddenly and may include the following:

  • Coughing up blood
  • Lightheadedness
  • Sharp chest pain (or, angina)
  • Sweating
  • Difficulty breathing (dyspnea)

Pulmonary embolism causes

The blood clot that causes a pulmonary embolism can occur if blood flow is restricted. The following are some of the causes:

  • Certain surgeries, such as knee replacement and hip replacement
  • Limited activity for a long time (e.g., a long car ride)
  • Airplane flights longer than six hours
  • Family history of blood clots
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity

Preventing pulmonary embolisms

You can help prevent pulmonary embolisms by taking action to lower your risk of deep vein thrombosis:

  • Move around as soon as possible after being immobile for a long time.
  • Exercise and stretch the muscles in your lower legs occasionally while sitting for an extended period.
  • If prescribed by your doctor, take medication to prevent blood clots following some types of surgery.

How can I get help if I have a pulmonary embolism?

See your primary care doctor if you have any of the above symptoms, especially if you also have risk factors for pulmonary embolism such as family history of blood clots, heart disease or obesity.

Pulmonary embolism may be difficult to diagnose without conducting imaging tests. If a pulmonary embolism is suspected, your doctor may use some of the following to confirm a diagnosis:

  • CT pulmonary angiogram, a minimally invasive test that uses computed tomography to check the pulmonary arteries for blood clots. For the test, a contrast agent is given through an IV to highlight the blood vessels.
  • Ultrasound, a noninvasive procedure that sends sound waves through the body to reveal blood clots.
  • Venography, an imaging test that uses X-rays to reveal the location of possible blood clots.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a procedure that uses a magnet to produce images of the inside of the body.

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