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When you have a deep-vein thrombosis (DVT), you need to treat it to avoid a life-threatening complication: a pulmonary embolism.

A pulmonary embolism (PE) usually happens when a blood clot in the leg breaks away, travels to the lungs, and blocks a lung artery. It can damage the lung and other organs and lead to low oxygen levels in the blood. It can even be fatal.

Pulmonary Embolism Symptoms

A pulmonary embolism doesn't always have symptoms. If there are symptoms, they include:

  • Chest pain, which may get worse with a deep breath
  • Sudden shortness of breath and rapid breathing
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Sudden cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Lightheadedness or fainting
  • Anxiety

If you think you have a pulmonary embolism, call 911.

Diagnosing a Pulmonary Embolism

A heart attack, pneumonia, and other things have similar symptoms to a pulmonary embolism. To find out if you have a PE, doctors may give you different types of X-rays and lung tests.

If you have a life-threatening PE, doctors will give you a drug called a thrombolytic to dissolve the clot. These drugs can save your life, but they have a serious side effect: bleeding that is hard to stop.  Doctors will carefully watch you for that.

Blood Thinners (Anticoagulants)

If you have a PE, your doctor will also give you a blood thinner.

Blood thinners doesn’t break up the clot. They prevent it from getting bigger and stop more clots from forming.

You will probably take a blood thinner pill for 3 months or longer. If you take Coumadin, you’ll need frequent blood tests to make sure you are getting the right dose. If you take a newer blood thinner, you won’t need frequent blood tests. Newer blood thinners include Eliquis, Pradaxa, and Xarelto.

After You've Had a Pulmonary Embolism

If you’ve had a pulmonary embolism, you and your doctor should figure out why it happened.

Your doctor should check on what may have led to the DVT, such as:

  • A clotting disorder
  • Major surgery
  • An injury
  • Obesity
  • High estrogen levels (from pregnancy, birth control pills, or hormone replacement)
  • Heart disease
  • Lung disease
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Sitting or lying still for a long time
  • Smoking
  • Cancer

Slideshow

Living With
Deep-Vein
Thrombosis

See the causes, dangers, and treatments of DVT in this slideshow.