A pulmonary embolus is a blockage of an artery in the lungs. The most common cause of the blockage is a blood clot.
A pulmonary embolus is most often caused by a blood clot that develops in a vein outside the lungs. The most common blood clot is one in a deep vein of the thigh or in the pelvis (hip area). This type of clot is called a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). The blood clot breaks off and travels to the lungs where it lodges.
Less common causes include air bubbles, fat droplets, amniotic fluid, or clumps of parasites or tumor cells.
You are more likely to get this condition if you or your family has a history of blood clots or certain clotting disorders. A pulmonary embolus may occur:
Disorders that may lead to blood clots include:
Main symptoms of a pulmonary embolism include chest pain that may be any of the following:
Other symptoms may include:
The health care provider will perform a physical exam and ask about your symptoms and medical history.
The following lab tests may be done to see how well your lungs are working:
The following imaging tests can help determine where the blood clot is located:
Other tests that may be done include:
Blood tests may be done to check if you have an increased chance of blood clotting, including:
A pulmonary embolus requires treatment right away. You may need to stay in the hospital:
Whether or not you need to stay in the hospital, you will likely need to take medicines at home to thin the blood:
If you cannot take blood thinners, your provider may suggest surgery to place a device called an inferior vena cava filter (IVC filter). This device is placed in the main vein in your belly. It keeps large clots from traveling into the blood vessels of the lungs. Sometimes, a temporary filter can be placed and removed later.
How well a person recovers from a pulmonary embolus can be hard to predict. It often depends on:
Some people can develop long-term heart and lung problems.
Death is possible in people with a severe pulmonary embolism.
Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911), if you have symptoms of pulmonary embolus.
Blood thinners may be prescribed to help prevent DVT in people at high risk, or those who are undergoing high-risk surgery.
If you had a DVT, your provider will prescribe pressure stockings. Wear them as instructed. They will improve blood flow in your legs and reduce your risk for blood clots.
Moving your legs often during long plane trips, car trips, and other situations in which you are sitting or lying down for long periods can also help prevent DVT. People at very high risk for blood clots may need shots of a blood thinner called heparin when they take a flight that lasts longer than 4 hours.
Do not smoke. If you smoke, quit. Women who are taking estrogen must stop smoking. Smoking increases your risk of developing blood clots.
Reviewed By: Todd Gersten, MD, Hematology/Oncology, Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute, Wellington, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.