What Is Venous Thromboembolism?

Your blood's ability to clot helps keep you alive. Without it, every shaving nick and paper cut could turn into a medical emergency.

But clotting can be a serious problem when it happens where it shouldn't, like in your veins, where a clot can cut off your blood flow. That's called a venous thromboembolism (VTE). VTEs are dangerous, but they're treatable -- and there's a lot you can do to lower the odds you'll get one.

VTE Basics

You may have never heard of a VTE before, but they're common. There are two types, which are set apart by where they are in your body.

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT). As the name suggests, it develops deep in your veins, usually in the legs. It can cut off the flow of blood.

DVTs can cause pain, swelling, redness, and warmth near the blocked vein.
Pulmonary embolism. This is more serious than a DVT. It usually happens when a DVT breaks loose and travels to your lungs.

A pulmonary embolism is a life-threatening emergency. It can make it hard to breathe and cause a fast heart rate, chest pain, and dizziness. It can also cause you to become unconscious.

To diagnose VTE, your doctor may do a blood test to check how well your blood clots. You'll also need other tests, like an ultrasound, CT scan, or lung scan.

What Increases Your Risk?

VTEs can develop if your blood flow changes or slows down somewhere in your body. Lots of things can cause that, like some diseases, medical treatments, and long airplane flights where your legs are stuck in the same position.

Things that make it more likely that you will get a VTE include:

Medical treatments. Your odds for a VTE go up if you're in the hospital for a while, get surgery (especially on your knees or hips), or have cancer treatments like chemotherapy.

Health conditions. Your VTE risk is higher if you have cancer, lupus or other immune problems, health conditions that make the blood thicker, or you're obese.

Medications. Hormone replacement therapy and birth control pills can make it more likely you'll get a VTE.

Your chances of a VTE also go up if you had an earlier VTE, stay in the same position for a long time, have a family history of blood clots, smoke, are pregnant, or you're over 60.

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VTE Treatment

If you have a VTE, you need to get it treated right away. Your doctor may talk to you about treatments like these:

Blood thinners. These drugs don't break up the clot, but they can stop it from getting bigger so your body has time to break it down on its own. They include heparin, low-molecular-weight heparin, apixaban (Eliquis), edoxaban (Savaysa), rivaroxaban (Xarelto), and warfarin (Coumadin).

Clot-busting drugs. These medicines are injections that can break up your clot. They include drugs like tPA (tissue plasminogen activator).

Surgery. In some cases, you may need to have your doctor put a special filter into a vein, which can stop any future clots from getting to your lungs. Sometimes, people need surgery to remove a clot.

Even after you recover from a VTE and you're out of the hospital, you'll probably still need treatment with blood thinners for at least 3 months. That's because your chances of having another VTE will be higher for a while.

VTE Prevention

There's a lot you and your doctors can do to cut your odds of getting a VTE.

Here's the most important thing: if you need to stay overnight in a hospital, ask your health care team about VTEs before you check in. Almost 2 out of 3 VTEs happen because of hospital visits. But if you get the right preventive treatment in the hospital, your risk can go way down.

If your health care team thinks you have a higher risk for a VTE -- based on your medical history, health, and the type of treatment you're getting -- you may need:

  • Blood thinners
  • Compression stockings (special tight socks) that help with blood flow
  • Intermittent pneumatic compression devices, which are kind of like blood pressure cuffs that automatically squeeze your legs to keep blood flowing

You may also need to get out of bed and walk around as soon as you can after treatment.

If you've had a VTE in the past, talk to your doctor about whether you need regular treatment to lower your chances of getting another.

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There are also things that everyone can do to lower their chances of a VTE:

And when you're traveling, whether by train, plane, or car:

  • Get up and walk around every 1 to 2 hours.
  • Move around in your seat and stretch your legs often.
  • Drink lots of fluids.
  • Don't smoke before your trip.
  • Don't drink alcohol, since it can dehydrate you.
  • Don't use medicines to make you sleep, so you'll stay awake enough to move around.
  • Ask your doctor if you should take an aspirin before a long plane flight.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Suzanne R. Steinbaum, MD on August 21, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

American Heart Association: "What Is Venous Thromboembolism?" "Prevention and Treatment of Venous Thromboembolism (VTE)" "Symptoms and Diagnosis of Venous Thromboembolism (VTE)."

UpToDate: "Patient education: Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lungs) (The Basics)," "Patient education: Deep vein thrombosis (blood clots in the legs) (The Basics)."

Cleveland Clinic: "Venous Thromboembolism (Deep Venous Thrombosis & Pulmonary Embolism)."

World Thrombosis Day: "Know VTE."

Mayo Clinic: "Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "DVT Prevention: Intermittent Pneumatic Compression Devices."

NHS Choices: "Preventing Deep Vein Thrombosis."

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