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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

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Pulmonary Embolism - Topic Overview

It may be hard to diagnose pulmonary embolism, because the symptoms are like those of many other problems, such as a heart attack, a panic attack, or pneumonia. A doctor will start by doing a physical exam and asking questions about your past health and your symptoms. This helps the doctor decide if you are at high risk for pulmonary embolism.

Based on your risk, you might have tests to look for blood clots or rule out other causes of your symptoms. Common tests include blood tests, CT scan, electrocardiogram (EKG, ECG), ultrasound, and MRI.

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 need 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 minimally invasive procedure to remove the clot (embolectomy).

Some people can't take blood thinners, or they form clots in spite of taking the medicine. To prevent future problems, they 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 helps keep blood clots from reaching the lungs.

If you have had pulmonary embolism once, you are more likely to have it again. Blood thinners can help reduce your risk, but they increase your risk of bleeding. If your doctor prescribes blood thinners, be sure you understand how to take your medicine safely.

You can reduce your risk of pulmonary embolism by doing things that help prevent blood clots in your legs.

  • Avoid sitting for long periods. Get up and walk around every hour or so, or flex your feet often.
  • Get moving as soon as you can after surgery.
  • When you travel, drink extra fluids. But avoid drinks with alcohol or caffeine.
  • Wear compression stockings if you are at high risk.
  • If you take blood thinners, take them just the way your doctor tells you to.
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