Pulmonary embolism is
the sudden blockage of a major blood vessel (artery) in the lung, usually by a
blood clot . In most cases, the clots are small and are not deadly, but they
can damage the lung. But if the clot is large and stops blood flow to the lung,
it can be deadly. Quick treatment could save your life or reduce the risk of
The most common symptoms
- Sudden shortness of breath.
Sharp chest pain that is worse when you cough or take a deep
- A cough that brings up pink, foamy mucus.
Pulmonary embolism can also cause more general symptoms.
For example, you may feel anxious or on edge, sweat a lot, feel lightheaded or
faint, or have a fast heart rate or
If you have symptoms like
these, you need to see a doctor right away, especially if they are sudden and
In most cases,
pulmonary embolism is caused by a blood clot in the leg that breaks loose and
travels to the lungs. A blood clot in a vein close to the skin is not likely to
cause problems. But having blood clots in deep veins (deep vein thrombosis) can lead to pulmonary embolism. More than 300,000 people each year have deep vein thrombosis or a pulmonary embolism.1
can block an artery, such as tumors, air bubbles,
amniotic fluid, or fat that is released into the blood
vessels when a bone is broken. But these are rare.
Anything that makes you more likely to form blood clots increases your
risk of pulmonary embolism. Some people are born with blood that clots too
quickly. Other things that can increase your risk include:
- Being inactive for long periods. This can
happen when you have to stay in bed after surgery or a serious illness, or when
you sit for a long time on a flight or car trip.
- Recent surgery
that involved the legs, hips, belly, or brain.
- Some diseases, such as cancer,
stroke, or a severe infection.
- Pregnancy and childbirth (especially if you had a
- Taking birth control
You are also at higher risk for blood clots if you are an
older adult (especially older than 70) or extremely overweight (obese).
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,
electrocardiogram (EKG, ECG), ultrasound, and