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What is Pulmonary Embolism?

A blood clot that has broken loose is called an embolism. If it has travelled to the lungs, it’s called a pulmonary embolism. A pulmonary embolism can be life threatening.

A pulmonary embolism occurs when one of the primary arteries in your lungs (the pulmonary artery) becomes blocked by a blood clot. These blood clots often originate in the leg and move through the body to the lungs. Because this blood clot can compromise the functionality of the lungs, a pulmonary embolism can be serious, even fatal. Fortunately, swift treatment options can help reduce these risks.


  • Shortness of breath that comes on suddenly
  • Chest pain that gets worse when you breathe deeply or cough
  • Coughing or vomiting blood

When to See a Doctor

If you experience symptoms of pulmonary embolism, call 911 and get medical help immediately.


Blood clots can be caused by anything that slows or stops blood circulation. This can include inactivity, surgery, injury, or inherited factors. Risk factors include:

  • Sitting for a long time, as when you’re driving or flying
  • Long periods of bedrest, as when hospitalized or paralyzed
  • Injury to a deep vein from surgery, a broken bone, or other trauma
  • Pregnancy and the first six weeks after giving birth
  • Birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy
  • Cancer and some of its treatments
  • Heart failure
  • Pacemaker or catheter in a central vein
  • Overweight or obesity
  • Smoking
  • Personal or family history of DVT or embolism

Diagnosis and Tests

If your doctor suspects you have a blood clot or pulmonary embolism, you may be given one or more of these tests:

  • Ultrasound. Sound waves are used to measure the blood flow through your veins and to identify any blood clots.
  • Venogram. An x-ray is taken to produce an image of your veins and to identify blood clots.
  • CT or MRI scans. Computerized tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provide images of the inside of the body, including the veins.
  • Blood tests. Your blood may be tested for an inherited blood clotting disorder. It may also be tested for a substance called D-dimer, which is usually present in patients with blood clots. If you don’t have it, your symptoms are probably not caused by a blood clot.


Pulmonary embolisms need to be treated right away.  Treatment also aims to keep you from getting more blood clots. Your treatment may include one or more of the following:

  • Blood thinner medications. These medications (also called anticoagulants) reduce your blood’s ability to clot. They can’t break up clots you already have, but they can prevent them from getting bigger. They can also prevent new clots from forming. They’re usually taken for at least three months.
  • Clot busters. These medications (also called thrombolytics) are given to break up blood clots. Because they can cause severe bleeding, they’re only given in very serious situations.
  • Removing the clot. Your doctor may recommend using a catheter, threading it through your blood vessel to remove the clot.


If you’re at risk of having a pulmonary embolism, or have had one before, take these measure to help prevent having one in the future.

  • Have regular checkups with your doctor. Make sure your prescriptions are still correct.
  • Take all your medications as prescribed.
  • If you’ve been in bed after surgery or an illness, get up and walk around as soon as possible.
  • If you have to sit for a long time, stand up and walk around every hour. Stretch your legs and feet every 20 minutes while sitting. Drink plenty of water.
  • Modify your lifestyle to improve your overall health. Maintain a healthy weight, quit smoking, and control your blood pressure.