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.