First Time User? Enroll now.
COVID-19: Vaccine information and additional resources | Medicaid: The program is changing and you must take steps to keep your UNC Health providers
Home > Health Library > Pulmonary Embolism
Pulmonary embolism is the sudden blockage of a major blood vessel (artery) in the lung, usually by a blood clot. In most cases, the clots are small and aren't deadly, but they can damage the lung. But if the clot is large and stops blood flow to the lung, it can be deadly.
Pulmonary embolism is caused by a blocked artery in the lungs. The most common cause of such a blockage is a blood clot that forms in a deep vein in the leg and travels to the lungs. Other things can block an artery, such as tumors or air bubbles. But these are rare.
The most common symptoms of pulmonary embolism are sudden shortness of breath; sudden, sharp chest pain that may get worse when you cough or take a deep breath; and a cough. The cough may bring up blood or pink and foamy mucus.
Pulmonary embolism can be hard to diagnose. That's because the symptoms are like those of other problems, like a heart attack. A doctor will do a physical exam. You might have tests to look for blood clots or rule out other causes of your symptoms. Tests may include blood tests and a CT angiogram.
Doctors usually treat pulmonary embolism with anticoagulants (blood thinners). These medicines help prevent new clots and keep existing clots from growing. If symptoms are severe and life-threatening, "clot-busting" drugs may be used. They can dissolve clots fast. Another option is surgery or a less invasive procedure to remove the clot (embolectomy).
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Pulmonary embolism is caused by a blocked artery in the lungs. The most common cause of such a blockage is a blood clot that forms in a deep vein in the leg and travels to the lungs, where it gets lodged in a smaller lung artery. Clots in the deep veins of the arms or pelvis can also lead to a pulmonary embolism.
In rare cases, pulmonary embolism may be caused by other substances. They include:
Many things increase your risk for having pulmonary embolism. These include:
If you've had pulmonary embolism once, you are more likely to have it again. Taking blood thinners reduces your risk.
You can also reduce your risk of pulmonary embolism by doing things that help prevent blood clots in your legs. For example:
The most common symptoms of pulmonary embolism are:
Pulmonary embolism can also cause other symptoms. These include:
If you have symptoms like these, you need to see a doctor right away, especially if they're sudden and severe. Quick treatment could save your life or reduce the risk of future problems.
Symptoms of pulmonary embolism usually begin all of a sudden. Reduced blood flow to one or both lungs can cause shortness of breath and a rapid heart rate. Inflammation of the tissue that covers the lungs and chest wall (pleura) can cause sharp chest pain.
A blood clot reduces the blood flow and may cause damage to lung tissue. The blood clot might dissolve on its own. If it does, it may not cause any major problems. But without treatment, new clots can form and cause another pulmonary embolism. If pulmonary embolism is diagnosed right away, treatment with anticoagulant medicines may prevent new blood clots from forming.
If a blood clot blocks the artery in the lung, blood flow may be completely stopped, causing sudden death. Doctors will consider aggressive steps when they are treating a large, dangerous pulmonary embolism.
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if you think you have symptoms of pulmonary embolism.
Call your doctor now if you have symptoms of a blood clot in the leg, including:
Blood clots in the deep veins of the leg are the most common cause of pulmonary embolism.
It may be hard to diagnose pulmonary embolism. That's because the symptoms are like those of many other problems, such as a heart attack or pneumonia.
A doctor will do a physical exam and ask questions about your past health and your symptoms.
You might have tests to look for blood clots or to rule out other causes of your symptoms. Tests may include:
Doctors usually treat pulmonary embolism with medicines called anticoagulants. They are often called blood thinners, but they don't really thin the blood. They help prevent new clots and keep existing clots from growing.
Most people take a blood thinner for a few months. People at high risk for blood clots may take it for the rest of their lives.
If symptoms are severe and life-threatening, "clot-busting" drugs called thrombolytics may be used. These medicines can dissolve clots quickly, but they increase the risk of serious bleeding. Another option is surgery or a less invasive procedure to remove the clot (embolectomy).
Some people may have a filter put into the large vein (vena cava) that carries blood from the lower body to the heart. A vena cava filter may help keep blood clots from reaching the lungs. This filter might be used if you can't take an anticoagulant.
Medicines called anticoagulants are used to treat pulmonary embolism. Anticoagulants are also called blood thinners. They can help prevent new blood clots and keep existing clots from growing.
You'll likely take an anticoagulant for at least 3 months. You may take it longer. If your risk for another pulmonary embolism stays high, you might take it for the rest of your life.
Different types of anticoagulants are used. Talk with your doctor about which medicine is right for you.
If you are in the hospital, you might be given an anticoagulant as a pill, a shot, or in a vein through an IV. After you go home, you might give yourself shots for a few days. For the long term, you'll likely take a pill.
Clot-dissolving (thrombolytic) medicines aren't often used to treat pulmonary embolism. They can quickly dissolve a blood clot. But they also greatly increase the risk of serious bleeding.
To improve blood flow, a blood clot can be removed during surgery. Or the clot might be removed with a less invasive procedure that uses a catheter (a thin tube that's guided through a blood vessel). This surgery or procedure is called an embolectomy.
An embolectomy is not common. But it may be done for a few reasons. These include:
Current as of:
July 6, 2021
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineMartin J. Gabica MD - Family MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineJeffrey S. Ginsberg MD - Hematology
Current as of: July 6, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Jeffrey S. Ginsberg MD - Hematology
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2021 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.