Pulmonary Embolism | Pulmonology & Critical Care | Loyola Medicine

Pulmonary Embolism

Overview and Facts about Pulmonary Embolism

A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot that forms in the arteries that moves from the heart to the lungs. The clot blocks the flow of blood to the lungs and other organs of the body, which can cause serious damage. If left untreated, a pulmonary embolism can be fatal.

Signs and Symptoms of Pulmonary Embolism

The most common sign of a pulmonary embolism is shortness of breath, which can come on suddenly or develop gradually. Other signs and symptoms of pulmonary embolism include:

  • Rapid breathing or wheezing
  • Coughing up bloody mucus and saliva
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting
  • Sharp pains in the chest or back and feelings of anxiety

Causes and Risk Factors of Pulmonary Embolism

The primary cause behind most pulmonary embolisms is deep vein thrombosis (DVT). A DVT occurs when the veins in the legs develop clots that are too big to dissolve through the normal process of blood thinning. These clots are big enough to block major blood vessels in the lungs or brain.

Factors that can increase your risk for pulmonary embolism include:

  • Obesity and leading a sedentary lifestyle
  • Cancer and cancer-related treatments
  • Family history or previous heart attack, stroke, or major surgery
  • Being older than 60

Tests and Diagnosis of Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolisms can be tricky to diagnose, especially for people with heart conditions like high blood pressure that can cause similar symptoms. If your doctor suspects a pulmonary embolism, he or she may order a test to confirm the diagnosis, including:

  • Chest x-ray, which provides detailed images of the heart and lungs.
  • Electrocardiography (ECG), which measures the activity of the heart.
  • MRI, which uses radio waves to produce detailed images of the chest.
  • CT scan, which provides cross-sectional images of the chest.
  • Venography, which is a specialized x-ray to see the veins of the legs.

Treatment and Care for Pulmonary Embolism

If the clot is small and not causing an emergency, the primary treatment option for a pulmonary embolism is a blood thinner, which helps to break up the clot. These drugs can also prevent new clots from forming in the future.

If surgery is necessary, you will most likely be treated by a pulmonary and critical care team. Surgery may be required if the clot is very large and blocking blood flow to the heart and lungs. For clot removal, the doctor slides a thin catheter into the artery to suck out the clot.