What's the Treatment for a Pulmonary Embolism?

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on December 07, 2022
2 min read

A pulmonary embolism (PE) is a blood clot in the lung that has dislodged from a vein and travels through the bloodsream. It’s serious and can be life-threatening. But the good news is that if it’s caught early, doctors can treat it. Here’s a look at some of the most common ways they tackle this condition.

Also called “anticoagulants,” these are the most common treatment for a blood clot in the lung. They serve two key roles: First, they keep the clot from getting any bigger. Second, they keep new clots from forming.

They don’t dissolve blood clots. Your body normally does that on its own over time.

The most commonly prescribed blood thinners are warfarin (Coumadin, Jantoven) and heparin. Warfarin is a pill and can treat and prevent clots. You get it through a shot or an IV. There are many other blood thinners in pill form, and your doctor will help decide which agent would work best in your situation. Heparin can lower the chances of another clot forming. You get it through a shot or an IV.

Treatment can begin while you’re in the hospital or even in the ER and you can be discharged the same day. How long you’ll stay and be treated depends on your condition.

Low-molecular-weight heparins are also widely used. These can be self-injected at home. They include:

Internal bleeding is the main side effect of blood thinners. It can happen if the medicine thins your blood too much. Your doctor may give you blood tests to keep an eye on that. However, even when at therapeutic doses, internal bleeding remains a risk.

In life-threatening situations, doctors might use what are called thrombolytic drugs. These quickly break up clots that cause severe symptoms. But they can lead to sudden bleeding and are only used after careful consideration.

In carefully selected cases, this is another emergency treatment your doctor might use. They’ll insert a thin, flexible tube into a vein in your thigh or arm. They’ll continue on to your lung, where they’ll remove the clot or use medicine to dissolve it.

If you can’t take blood thinners, your doctor might use this option to treat your PE:

Inferior vena cava filter. The inferior vena cava is a large vein that carries blood from the lower body to the heart. Your doctor can put a filter in it to stop clots before they get to your lungs. It won’t stop clots from forming -- just from getting to the lungs. This procedure may be needed when blood thinners can't be used because of a recent surgery, a stroke caused by bleeding, or significant bleeding in another area of the body.