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Pulmonary Embolism

Your healthcare provider has told you that you have pulmonary embolism (PE). This means you have an increased risk of a serious health episode, such as lung or heart failure, or even death. Read on to learn more about PE and how it can be treated.

What Is Pulmonary Embolism?

Outline of human torso showing heart, lungs, and major veins. Blood clot is in leg vein with arrow showing it traveling up vein to lung causing pulmonary embolism.
A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot forms in a vein and is carried by the blood into the lungs.

PE occurs when a blood clot forms in a vein and travels through the blood into the lungs. The blood clot then lodges in the lungs and blocks blood flow. This forces the heart and lungs to work harder to get oxygen-rich blood out to the rest of the body. This puts stress on the heart and lungs and, in severe cases, can cause them to fail. The most common cause of PE is a condition called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). DVT occurs when a clot forms, often in a vein deep in the leg. The clot can then travel to another site, such as the lung, and cause a blockage and other problems. Some causes of DVT can result from having a blood-clotting disorder or being bedridden for a long period.

How Is Pulmonary Embolism Diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider examines you and asks about your health history. You may also have one or more of the following:

  • Blood tests to take samples of blood.

  • Imaging tests to take detailed pictures of the inside of the body. These may include a chest x-ray, CT scan, lung scan, and ultrasound.

  • Electrocardiography (ECG or EKG) to test how well the heart is functioning

How Is Pulmonary Embolism Treated?

  • Medications. Medications called anticoagulants or blood thinners are usually given to treat PE. They help prevent more blood clots from forming. Some medications can also keep an existing clot from getting larger. This helps keep clots at a size that can be dissolved by the body.

  • Thrombolysis. This procedure is often used to dissolve a large clot. A catheter (thin tube) is inserted into the affected vein. X-rays or other images are taken of the vein and the clot. Then, clot-dissolving medication is delivered to the clot through the catheter. In some cases, a mechanical device is also used to break up the clot.

  • Inferior vena cava filter. An inferior vena cava (IVC) filter is a small device used to trap a blood clot in the lower body. The filter is delivered by a catheter and placed in the IVC, which is the body’s largest vein. This procedure may be done if medications aren’t enough to prevent another PE.

  • Pulmonary embolectomy. In severe cases, this surgery is done to remove a blood clot. Incisions are made in the heart or vein to remove the clot. Or, a catheter is passed through a vein to the clot and the clot suctioned or taken out.

What Are the Long-term Concerns?

With treatment, blood clots usually can be dissolved or removed. Some treatments can even help prevent future clots. But having PE puts you at risk of having another life-threatening blood clot. So, you will likely need to take anticoagulants to help keep blood clots from forming again. You may need to take this medication for months or years. You may also need to make lifestyle changes. This may include getting more active and eating healthier. Other precautions may need to be taken to help protect you from blood clots. This may include wearing compression stockings and doing leg exercises on long car or plane rides. Your healthcare provider can tell you more.

Call the healthcare provider right away if you have any of the following:

  • Chest pain (call 911)

  • Trouble breathing (call 911)

  • Coughing up blood (call 911)

  • Fainting (call 911)

  • Skin turns blue (call 911)

  • Dizziness

  • Rapid, pounding, or unusual heartbeat

  • Sweating more than usual

  • Unusual swelling or pain in your leg

© 2000-2011 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.