A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Pulmonary embolism: 4 things to know

If you’re going on a long plane ride, beware of a danger far greater than a kid kicking the back of your seat. That danger is pulmonary embolism, and it occurs when an artery in the lungs becomes blocked by a blood clot.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Woman having a hard time breathing, illustration - Pulmonary embolism

Cough, chest pain and shortness of breath are all potential symptoms of a pulmonary embolism.

The most common symptom of a pulmonary embolism is shortness of breath. Other symptoms include chest pain and cough.

“Most blood clots come from your thighs,” said Marshfield Clinic pulmonologist Dr. Craig Wolfe. “So when I examine someone who I believe may have a pulmonary embolism, I look for swelling in one leg versus the other, pain in one leg and sudden onset of shortness of breath.”

Pulmonary embolism is detected by a cat scan of the chest. If you are having symptoms of a pulmonary embolism, it’s important to seek medical attention as quickly as possible.

A life-threatening condition

“Pulmonary embolism is always life threatening,” Wolfe said. “You can die from them if you get a big blockage that blocks all the blood flow through your lungs.”

Wolfe said once you have one blood clot, more tend to form.

It’s like a snowball running downhill,” Wolfe said. “The more clots you have, the more new clots form and the quicker they build up.”

Treating pulmonary embolism

Wolfe said if a clot isn’t big enough to significantly block blood flow returning to the heart, then medication can be given that stops the formation of future clots. However, if the existing clot is blocking blood flow to the point a person’s blood pressure drops, medicine can be administered to break up that clot.

Risk factors

Being immobile for long stretches of time or having a traumatic injury to your legs puts you at higher risk for a pulmonary embolism. Smoking, cancer and obesity all increase your chance of developing blood clots.

If you have had a recent surgery, your risk for blood clots may increase. A family history of pulmonary embolism also increases your risk for developing the condition.

If you’re taking a long trip via car or airplane, it’s important to stand up, walk around and stretch your legs occasionally to get blood flowing properly.

“If you get pain or swelling in just one leg, that’s a concern that should be addressed immediately by your care provider,” Wolfe said.

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