Pulmonary embolism

Pulmonary embolism is described as abrupt blockage of a main blood vessel in the lung, usually due to a blood clot. In most instances, the clots are small and not dangerous, but capable of damaging the lung. For large-sized clots that stop the flow of blood to the lung, it can be deadly. Rapid treatment can save a life or minimize the risk for future issues.

What are the indications?

  • Abrupt shortness of breath
  • Piercing chest pain that is aggravated by coughing or taking deep breaths
  • Cough with pinkish, foamy mucus

Remember that pulmonary embolism can also trigger generalized symptoms such as increased sweating, anxiety, lightheadedness or rapid heart rate. If any of these symptoms are present, a doctor must be consulted right away, especially if they are abrupt and severe.

What are the causes?

Pulmonary embolism

Piercing chest pain that is aggravated by coughing or taking deep breaths

In most instances, pulmonary embolism is triggered by a blood clot in the leg that detaches and moves to the lungs. A blood clot within a vein near the skin is not likely to trigger any issues. On the other hand, blood clots in the deep veins can lead to pulmonary embolism.

Other factors that can lead to a blocked artery include air bubbles, tumors, amniotic fluid or even fat that was discharged into the blood vessels if a bone is fractured, yet these are considered rare.

Risk factors

Remember that anything that puts one more likely to form blood clots increases the risk for pulmonary embolism. Some individuals are born with blood that rapidly clots. Other factors the increases the risk include:

  • Inactivity for extended periods. This occurs when staying in bed after surgery or a serious condition or when being seated for long hours on a car trip or flight.
  • Smoking
  • Recent surgery involving the hips, legs, brain or abdomen
  • Using birth control pills or hormone therapy
  • Certain diseases such as heart failure, cancer, stroke or severe infection
  • Pregnancy and childbirth

The elderly especially those over 70 years old or individuals who are obese are also at risk for blood clots.


Pulmonary embolism is managed using anticoagulants or blood thinners. These medications work by preventing new clots and prevent current ones from growing.

Most individuals are instructed to use a blood thinner for a few months while those at high risk should use them for life.

In case the symptoms are severe and dangerous, thrombolytics might be used. These medications work by rapidly dissolving clots but can increase the risk for significant bleeding. An alternative is surgery or a less invasive procedure to get rid of the clot.


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