Recovering From a Pulmonary Embolism

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on March 21, 2024
3 min read

A pulmonary embolism (PE) is caused by a blood clot that gets stuck in an artery in your lungs. That blockage can damage your lungs and hurt other organs if they don’t get enough oxygen. It’s a serious condition, and recovery can take weeks or months.

Once you’ve had one, your chances of another go up. But you can do some things to keep your blood flowing and prevent future clots. You’ll also want to watch your legs for signs of a new blood clot. Call your doctor right away if you notice any of these:

  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • Tenderness
  • Warmer-than-normal or red skin

Drugs called anticoagulants are the first tools doctors reach for if you’ve had a pulmonary embolism. They’re known as “blood thinners” because they make it harder for your blood to clot. They don’t break up a clot, but they keep it from getting bigger as your body dissolves it.

When you take blood thinners, you may need to change what you eat and drink. For example, foods rich in vitamin K, which helps your body form blood clots, may change the way blood thinners work. That means you need to try to eat the same amount of leafy green vegetables, fish, liver, and some kinds of vegetable oils that you have been. Do not greatly change how much less or more that you eat of these types of foods.

Ask your doctor if it’s OK for you to drink alcohol while you take blood thinners.

You also should talk to your doctor about any other prescription or over-the-counter medicines you take. Some common ones can affect how blood thinners work, too: These include:

You can expect to take blood thinners for at least 3 months and possibly much longer. Some people need to take them for life.

Most people can walk and do light housework right away after a pulmonary embolism, but you may get tired easily or feel short of breath.

Your doctor probably will give you specific exercises to do for several weeks or months to help boost your strength and breathing. Follow those recommendations, but don’t push yourself, especially if anything hurts or you notice any swelling.

A pulmonary embolism most often starts in your legs, in one of the veins that brings blood to your heart and lungs. Making sure that blood flows freely can help prevent another blood clot.

One way to do that is with special socks known as compression stockings. These socks get tighter as they go down toward your ankle, which helps your leg muscles move blood up your leg. Your doctor will give you a prescription for compression stockings that says how much pressure they need to apply.

This kind of serious, painful experience can leave you feeling sad or scared, especially if your recovery puts new limits on what you can do. If you feel anxious or depressed, talk with your doctor about a referral to a counselor or support groups in your area.