A pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood vessel in your lungs becomes blocked. Most of the time this blockage is caused by a blood clot or part of one and happens suddenly. This condition can be very serious because it can stop blood going to your lungs. It can be life-threatening if not treated quickly.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of a pulmonary embolism can sometimes be difficult to recognise because they can vary between different people. Plus, the symptoms of a blood clot to the lungs are also seen in many other lung conditions. The main symptoms of pulmonary embolism include; pain in your chest, feeling short of breath, coughing up blood and feeling faint or fainting.
The symptoms you have and how severe they are will depend on how big the pulmonary embolism is and where it is. For example, if the clot is small and in a blood vessel at the outer edge of your lungs, you may have mild symptoms. If the clot is large and in a central blood vessel, it could cause you to collapse suddenly. If you have severe symptoms you should call an ambulance and get medical help as soon as you can.
What causes a pulmonary embolism?
Most pulmonary embolisms are caused by a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) which is a blood clot in your leg or pelvis. If the blood clot moves or a bit of it breaks off and travels to your lungs, it is called a pulmonary embolism.
There are certain factors known to be associated with developing a blood clot. Primarily, being inactive for long periods of time; for example, if you’re recovering after a big operation or are sitting still during a long journey. In addition, having blood that clots more easily, for instance if you are overweight, pregnant or taking the contraceptive pill also increases your risk.
Less commonly, you might have a condition that causes your blood to clot more easily than normal, such as cancer, or cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
How is a pulmonary embolism diagnosed?
If your Doctor suspects a pulmonary embolism they will perform a number of tests which may include:
· Chest X-ray
· Ultrasound scan
· A blood test called D-dimer
· Computerised tomography pulmonary angiography (CTPA)
· Ventilation-perfusion scan (also called isotope lung scanning)
How is a pulmonary embolism treated?
If you have a pulmonary embolism it is important that it is treated quickly. This means that you will usually receive treatment while you are waiting for confirmation of your diagnosis. Common treatments include:
· Taking anticoagulant injections and drugs: This is the main treatment which causes chemical changes in your blood to stop blood clots getting bigger and prevent new clots forming.
· Embolectomy: If you need treatment quickly or other treatments have not worked you may require an operation called an embolectomy to remove the blood clot.
· Inferior vena cava (IVC) filters: Most people with DVT can have treatment with anticoagulants but if you can’t or if you are at high risk of another pulmonary embolism your Doctor may suggest you try an IVC filter. This is a small metal device placed inside a vein to trap any clots before they can travel to the heart and lungs, they are usually a temporary measure.
Prevention of a pulmonary embolism
Taking measures to prevent blood clots in your legs will help protect you against pulmonary embolism. If you are in hospital for an operation or due to an illness, you may be more likely to develop a DVT which can lead to a pulmonary embolism. To prevent DVT it is important to drink plenty of fluids, to keep moving about as much as you can and wear compression stockings. Doctors may advise you to wear an intermittent pneumatic compression device which is an inflatable cuff wrapped around your leg or foot. An electrical pump inflates the cuff which squeezes your deep veins and encourages circulation. Finally, anticoagulant medication such as heparin may be given to prevent blood clots forming.
This article is intended to inform and give insight but not treat, diagnose or replace the advice of a doctor. Always seek medical advice with any questions regarding a medical condition.