A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot in the pulmonary artery, which is the blood vessel that transports blood from the heart to the lungs.
It is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition as it can prevent the blood from reaching your lungs.
When the blood leaves the heart it is low in oxygen and needs to reach the lungs to pick up oxygen.
Pulmonary embolism symptoms
The signs and symptoms of a pulmonary embolism can sometimes be difficult to recognise because they can vary between individuals. However, the main symptoms include:
- chest pain – a sharp, stabbing pain that may be worse when you breathe in
- shortness of breath – which can come on suddenly or develop gradually
- coughing – which is usually dry, but may include coughing up blood or mucus that contains blood
- feeling faint, dizzy or passing out
You should visit your GP immediately if you have a combination of these symptoms.
Read more about the symptoms of a pulmonary embolism.
Causes of a pulmonary embolism
Pulmonary embolisms often occur when part or all of a blood clot travels from one of the deep veins in your legs up into your lungs.
A blood clot in one of the deep veins of the legs is known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). DVT can occur for no apparent reason, but it often develops after long periods of inactivity, such as during a long-haul flight or if you are ill in 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 a blood vessel becomes damaged.
Read more about the causes of a pulmonary embolism.
Treating a pulmonary embolism
Pulmonary embolisms are treated with anticoagulant medicines, which reduce the blood's clotting ability and prevent blood clots from getting bigger.
You will be prescribed an anticoagulant called warfarin, which will help break down any blood clots and ensure that the blood flow to your lungs is uninterrupted.
As it can take a while for warfarin to start working, you will also be prescribed another anticoagulant called heparin. This will have an immediate blood-thinning effect and you will need to take it for the first few days.
As part of your treatment, you will also need to have regular blood tests to check that the dose of warfarin you are receiving is correct. If it is too high, you may experience bleeding, and if it is too low you may have further blood clots.
Keeping mobile will also help you to maintain good blood circulation and prevent further blood clots from forming.
Read more about treating a pulmonary embolism.
Preventing a pulmonary embolism
A pulmonary embolism can sometimes occur after surgery, particularly if surgery is on the lower half of your body.
Blood vessel damage and being inactive while in hospital increases your risk of developing blood clots. Your risk is also increased if you:
- are 40 years of age or over
- have had a blood clot in the past
- have a family history of blood clots
- are overweight or obese
As well as taking warfarin while in hospital to help thin your blood, wearing compression stockings may also be recommended. They fit tightly around your lower legs and encourage the blood to flow more quickly around your body.
You can also reduce your risk of developing a pulmonary embolism if you:
Read more about preventing a pulmonary embolism.