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Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolism happens when one or more of your arteries in your lungs gets blocked by a blood clot, fat or tumour. The most common type of pulmonary embolism is caused by a blood clot that moves through your blood stream, goes through your heart and blocks off an artery in your lung.

Most pulmonary embolisms are caused from clots originating in the lower extremities (deep vein thrombosis), and many resolve on their own. However in some cases, pulmonary embolism can cause sudden death.
Pulmonary embolism can be caused by:

  • Clots from the venous circulation from the right side of the heart or tumours that have invaded the circulatory system
  • Other sources such as amniotic fluid, air, fat, bone marrow and foreign substances

Signs and Symptoms

  • People with pulmonary embolus may have:
  • a cough that begins suddenly, and may produce bloody sputum (mucus), significant amounts of visible blood or lightly blood streaked sputum (phlegm)
  • sudden onset of shortness of breath at rest or with exertion
  • lightheadedness
  • fainting
  • dizziness
  • sweating
  • anxiety
  • rapid breathing
  • rapid heart rate
  • chest pain:
    • under the breastbone or on one side
    • sharp, stabbing, burning, aching or dull, heavy sensation
    • may be worse at night
    • may radiate to the shoulder, arm, neck, jaw, or other area
    • may be worsened by breathing deeply, coughing, eating, bending or stooping

If you have these symptoms, or if you think you have pulmonary embolism, see your doctor right away. Your symptoms could be caused by pulmonary embolism, or they could be caused by another disease; only a doctor can tell.

Risk Factors


Anyone can get pulmonary embolism. The risk factors are:

  • prolonged bed rest or inactivity, including long trip in a car or in a plane
  • using oral contraceptives (birth control pills)
  • surgery
  • pregnancy – before, during and after delivery
  • cancer
  • stroke
  • heart attack
  • heart surgery
  • fractures of the hips or femur
  • previous deep vein thrombosis

Treatment


If you think you have a pulmonary embolism it is important to get medical treatment right away.

If your doctor diagnosed a blood clot in your lung (or leg) you will be treated with an anticoagulation therapy (blood clot prevention medication) called warfarin and heparin.  It is important to talk to your doctor and pharmacist about all of the possible side effects with anticoagulation therapy.

Your doctor may also prescribe clot dissolvers (thrombolytics). Most clots usually dissolve on their own but sometimes you may get medicines to help the clots dissolve quickly. There are a number of risks with these drugs and are often only giving in emergency situations.

Prevention


Early detection and treatment of deep vein thrombosis (clots of the legs) can reduce the risk of pulmonary embolism.

To reduce your risk after surgery, your doctor may encourage you to walk and start some activity.  Other ways to prevent clotting may include leg exercises and compression stockings. As well, low doses of heparin injected under the skin (subcutaneous heparin therapy) may be used for people who have to stay in bed for a long time.

Prevention while traveling

The risk of getting a blood clot while you travel is low. However, anyone traveling more than four hours, whether by air, car, bus, or train, may be at risk for blood clots. While you travel move your legs frequently and exercise your calf muscles. When possible take a break from sitting to stretch your legs. Some airlines will have exercises you can do in the magazine in your seat pocket.

Signs and Symptoms

If you have any of the following symptoms, or if you think you have pulmonary embolism, see your doctor right away. Your symptoms could be caused by pulmonary embolism, or they could be caused by another disease.

LEARN MORE

Risk Factors

Anyone can get pulmonary embolism, and here are the risk factors.

LEARN MORE

Treatment

If you think you have a pulmonary embolism it is important to get medical treatment right away.

LEARN MORE

Prevention

Early detection and treatment of deep vein thrombosis (clots of the legs) can reduce the risk of pulmonary embolism.

LEARN MORE