A pulmonary embolism (PE) is a blood clot from your leg that travels to your lung and stays there. This causes issues with blood flow and oxygen levels in your lungs. Medications can help most people with a pulmonary embolism, but you need a prompt diagnosis and treatment. You’ll need to take medicine for several months afterward.
A pulmonary embolism (PE) is a blood clot in the blood vessels of your lung. This happens when a clot in another part of your body (often your leg or arm) moves through the veins to your lung. A PE restricts blood flow to your lungs, lowers oxygen levels in your lungs and increases blood pressure in your pulmonary arteries.
Without quick treatment, a pulmonary embolism can cause heart or lung damage and even death.
With proper diagnosis and treatment, a PE is seldom fatal. However, an untreated PE can be serious, leading to other medical complications, including death. About 33% of people with a pulmonary embolism die before they get a diagnosis and treatment.
A pulmonary embolism can:
Pulmonary embolism is one of the most common heart and blood vessel diseases in the world. It ranks third behind heart attack and stroke. In the United States, about 350,000 people a year get a PE.
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The first signs of pulmonary embolism are usually shortness of breath and chest pains that get worse if you exert yourself or take a deep breath. You may cough up bloody mucus.
If you have these symptoms, get medical attention right away. Pulmonary embolism is serious but very treatable. Quick treatment greatly reduces the chance of death.
Symptoms of pulmonary embolism vary, depending on the severity of the clot. Although most people with a pulmonary embolism experience symptoms, some don’t.
Pulmonary embolism symptoms may include:
If you have any symptoms of pulmonary embolism, get medical attention immediately.
Because you can have a blood clot and not have any symptoms, discuss your risk factors with your healthcare provider.
Pulmonary embolism causes include:
People at risk of developing a PE include those who:
If you have any of these risk factors and you’ve had a blood clot, talk with your healthcare provider so they can take steps to reduce your risk.
A provider will use the following tests to make a PE diagnosis:
Other tests your provider may order include:
Healthcare providers usually treat a PE in a hospital, where they can monitor your condition closely.
The length of your pulmonary embolism treatment and hospital stay will vary, depending on the severity of the clot.
The main treatment for a PE is an anticoagulant (blood thinner).
Depending on the severity of your clot and its effect on your other organs such as your heart, you may also undergo thrombolytic therapy, surgery or interventional procedures to improve blood flow in your pulmonary arteries.
In most cases, treatment consists of anticoagulant medications (blood thinners). Anticoagulants decrease your blood’s ability to clot. This prevents future blood clots.
As with any medicine, it’s important to understand how and when to take your anticoagulant and follow your provider’s guidelines.
Your diagnosis will determine the type of medication you’ll take, how long you need to take it, and the type of follow-up monitoring you’ll need. Be sure to keep all scheduled follow-up appointments with your provider and the laboratory so they can monitor your response to the medication.
While taking anticoagulants, your follow-up will include frequent blood tests (prothrombin time test) to see how fast your blood clots. This helps your provider know if you’re taking the right dose.
Compression stockings (support hose) improve blood flow in your legs. People with deep vein thrombosis often use them. You should use them as your provider prescribes. The stockings are usually knee-high length and compress your legs to prevent your blood from pooling.
Talk with your provider about how to use your compression stockings, for how long and how to care for them. It’s important to wash compression stockings according to directions to prevent damaging them.
If a PE is life-threatening, or if other treatments aren’t effective, your provider may recommend using surgery or a catheter to remove the blood clot from your pulmonary artery. Thrombolytic therapy (next section) is another option.
Thrombolytic medications (“clot busters”), including tissue plasminogen activator (TPA), dissolve the clot. People always receive thrombolytics in the intensive care unit (ICU) of a hospital where a provider can monitor them. You may receive this type of medication if you have a special situation, such as low blood pressure or an unstable condition because of the pulmonary embolism.
Bleeding is a possible side effect of medications for pulmonary embolism treatment. A provider will give you the dose of anticoagulants or thrombolytics that fits your situation. Keeping you in the hospital allows them to monitor your condition.
Ways to prevent a pulmonary embolism include:
Your provider may also recommend an interventional procedure in which a healthcare provider places a filter inside your body’s largest vein. A vena cava filter traps clots before they enter your lungs.
Without treatment, a pulmonary embolism is a very serious condition that can lead to permanent illness or death. With treatment, your prognosis depends on the size of the blood clot and blockages, as well as your overall health and how well your heart can pump blood.
It can take months or years for a pulmonary embolism to go away completely. Repeated PE or a very large PE can lead to pulmonary hypertension in some people.
You’ll need to take a blood thinner for three to six months or longer. Don’t stop taking this unless your provider instructs you to. If you’re taking a blood thinner, don’t do things that have a high risk of an injury that could make you bleed.
Be sure you discuss and understand your follow-up care with your healthcare provider. Follow their recommendations to reduce the risk of another PE.
Keep all appointments with your provider and the laboratory so they can monitor your response to prescribed treatments.
See your healthcare provider for follow-up appointments. While taking a blood thinner, contact your provider if you have black poop, a bad headache or a bruise that’s getting bigger. These could mean that you’re bleeding.
Get immediate treatment if you have pulmonary embolism symptoms. (See symptoms section above.)
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Treatments help many people with a pulmonary embolism, but it’s important to get a quick diagnosis and treatment. Be on the lookout for symptoms if you have risk factors for a PE and do what you can to prevent one. If you do get a pulmonary embolism, get help quickly.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/13/2022.
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