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A cardiologist holds a stethoscope to check her patient's heart rate and rhythm.

Pulmonary embolism

Pulmonary embolism is a blockage in the lung’s pulmonary artery, usually caused by blood clots that travel from veins in other parts of the body (usually deep veins in the legs). Pulmonary embolisms can be life-threatening, due to the blocking of blood flow into the lungs, but the risk can be significantly reduced with prompt treatment.

Symptoms of a pulmonary embolism

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain that may resemble a heart attack
  • Coughing that produces blood

Pulmonary embolism causes

Although blood clots are usually the main cause, a blockage can also be caused by:

  • Fat from the marrow of a broken bone
  • Part of a tumor
  • Air bubbles

Types of pulmonary embolism

  • Acute pulmonary embolism is the sudden onset of symptoms caused by a blood clot in the lungs.
  • Chronic pulmonary embolism, the least common type, is caused by residual blood clots left along the vessel walls in the lungs, even after previous treatments.
  • Subacute pulmonary embolism develops over the course of 2-12 weeks, has a higher mortality rate than other types, and is also more prone to becoming treatment-resistant.

Pulmonary embolism risk factors

  • Blood disorders or conditions like kidney disease that make someone more prone to clotting
  • Cancer and chemotherapy treatment
  • COVID-19
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Prolonged periods of immobility
  • Smoking
  • Surgery

Preventing pulmonary embolism

The best way to prevent pulmonary embolism is by taking efforts to prevent blood clots in your leg veins. Common tactics for this include:

  • Doing pneumatic compression treatments
  • Engaging in physical activity
  • Keeping your legs elevated
  • Taking blood thinners before and after an operation
  • Wearing compression stockings

Treating a pulmonary embolism

The goal of treating a pulmonary embolism is to keep the clot from getting bigger and prevent new ones from forming. Your physician may prescribe blood thinners, recommend clot removal surgery, or provide other suggestions for ongoing care.

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