Pulmonary Embolism: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments

Pulmonary embolism is a frightening condition that often comes on suddenly. You can go from feeling fine one moment to coughing and gasping for breath the next. And it can happen to anyone, although certain people are more prone to it than others. What exactly causes pulmonary embolism, and is there a way to lower your risk? Read on for some insight into this frightening malady:

What is pulmonary embolism? Pulmonary embolism results from a blockage in an artery that feeds the lungs. Most often, this blockage is caused by a blood clot that has traveled from elsewhere in the body such as the leg. It's common to have multiple blockages resulting from several clots that may lodge in more than one artery.

How do I know I have pulmonary embolism? A sudden pain in the chest, a feeling of weakness, coughing (sometimes with blood) all indicate the possibility of pulmonary embolism. You may find the pain worsening if you bend over, inhale deeply, or cough. You may be convinced you're having a heart attack. You may also feel faint, have an irregular or rapid heartbeat, be sweating, and have swelling in the legs.

How quickly should I get to a doctor? As fast as possible. Pulmonary embolism can be deadly if not treated—in fact, about a third of all people who don't seek treatment will die. Some of the tests that will help doctors and hospital personnel determine whether you're suffering from pulmonary embolism include chest x-rays, lung scan, CT scan, blood tests, and pulmonary angiogram. Pulmonary angiogram usually is the test of last resort if other tests are inconclusive. With this test, a small tube is put into a large groin vein and threaded through the heart into your pulmonary arteries. A special dye is then injected into the tube so doctors can see any blockages.

How is pulmonary embolism treated? The first line of defense is to break up any clots that exist. A clot-dissolving medication is administered, and surgery may be necessary if the clot is unusually large or hard to dissolve. It's common to stay on blood-thinning medication for long periods of time after having pulmonary embolism.

Can I prevent this condition? You can definitely reduce your risk by avoiding long periods of immobility. When flying, get up and move around the cabin. Don't sit with your legs crossed. If you must lie or sit for long periods, such as when you're confined to bed rest, talk to your doctor about your risk and if there's any medication you can take to prevent clots from forming.