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Pulmonary Embolism

Symptoms | Causes | Treatment | Prevention

A pulmonary embolism is a blockage in the pulmonary artery, which is the blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the lungs.  This blockage, usually a blood clot, is potentially life threatening, as it can prevent blood from reaching the lungs.  A pulmonary embolism is often caused by a blood clot travelling up from one of the deep veins in your legs (DVT) to your heart and lungs.


The symptoms of a pulmonary embolism can sometimes be difficult to recognize because they can vary between individuals.  However, the main symptoms include:

  • Chest pain – a sharp, stabbing pain that may be worse when you take in a deep breath
  • Shortness of breath – this can come on suddenly or develop gradually
  • Coughing – this is usually dry, but may include coughing up blood or mucus that contains blood
  • Feeling faint, dizzy or passing out.  Should you experience any of the above symptoms, contact you PCP or dial 911 immediately and go to the nearest emergency room.


The DVT can occur for no apparent reason, but it often develops after a long period of inactivity, such as during a long-flight or if you’re in the hospital.  DVT can also occur during pregnancy, as a result of some medical conditions, such as cancer or heart failure, or if the wall of the blood vessel becomes damaged.


Pulmonary embolism is treated with anticoagulant medicines.  These stop the blood clot from getting bigger allowing your body to slowly reabsorb the clots, and it reduces the risk of further developing additional clots.  If you’re diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism, you will normally be given regular anticoagulant injections for 5-7 days to begin with.  In addition, you will also be prescribed an anticoagulant tablet called Warfarin to take for several months.  As part of your treatment you will need to have regular blood tests to check that you are receiving the correct dose.  If the dose is too high, you may experience bleeding, and if it is too low, you may develop further clots.


Ways to prevent pulmonary embolism include:

  • Taking the anticoagulant tablets (Warfarin) when medically indicated
  • Wearing compression stockings
  • Avoiding prolonged periods of inactivity
  • Live a healthy lifestyle – stop smoking, eat a healthy diet, lose weight and exercise regularly