What is a pulmonary embolism (PE)?

A pulmonary embolism (PE) occurs when there is a blockage in the lung (pulmonary) arteries. In a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot breaks off from another part of the bloodstream and travels to the arteries in the lungs.

When a clot is in a deep vein—usually in the thigh or lower leg—the condition is called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). A pulmonary embolism is the most serious complication of a deep vein thrombosis.

Who is at risk of developing a pulmonary embolism (PE)?

People at risk for PE are those who:

  • Have been inactive or immobile for long periods of time.
  • Have certain inherited conditions, such as blood clotting disorders or factor V Leiden.
  • Are having surgery or have broken a bone (the risk is higher weeks following a surgery or injury).
  • Have cancer, a history of cancer, or are receiving chemotherapy.
  • Are bedridden or sit for long periods of time.

Other risk factors for PE are:

  • Being overweight or obese.
  • Smoking cigarettes.
  • Being pregnant or having given birth in the previous six weeks.
  • Taking birth control pills (oral contraceptives) or hormone replacement therapy.
  • Having diseases such as stroke, paralysis, chronic heart disease, or high blood pressure.
  • Having had recent injury or trauma to a vein.
  • Having had severe injuries, burns, or fractures of the hips or thigh bone.
  • Being above the age of 60.

If the patient has any of these risk factors and has had a blood clot, he or she should meet with a health care provider so appropriate steps can be taken to reduce personal risk.

How serious is a pulmonary embolism (PE)?

A PE is a very serious condition that can:

  • Cause heart damage.
  • Damage part of the lung because of the lack of blood flow to lung tissue, which can lead to pulmonary hypertension.
  • Cause low oxygen levels in the blood.
  • Damage other organs in the body because of a lack of oxygen.
  • Cause death if the blood clot gets too large or if there are multiple blood clots.

What are the symptoms of pulmonary embolism (PE)?

The symptoms of a PE vary based on the individual and the severity of the blood clot. Symptoms include:

  • Sudden shortness of breath
  • Problems with breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing with or without bloody sputum (mucus)
  • An arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
  • Swelling of the leg or along a vein in the leg
  • Pain or tenderness in the leg
  • Increased warmth in a leg that is swollen or painful
  • Red or discolored skin on the affected leg
  • Feelings of anxiety or dread
  • Bluish skin (cyanosis)
  • Lightheadedness or fainting
  • Rapid breathing
  • Sweating, clammy skin
  • Increased heart rate

The patient should see a doctor right away if experiencing any of these symptoms. However, in some cases, it is possible for the patient to have no symptoms with a pulmonary embolism.

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