A pulmonary embolism (PE) is a very serious condition that could cause death if not found early enough. It is a sudden blood clot or blockage in the lung that more than likely has traveled through the bloodstream to the lung; this type of clot is known as embolus.
At least 100,000 cases of PE occur in the United States each year. About 30 percent of patients with the condition will die if not treated within the first few hours of onset of the condition. PE is the third most common cause of death among hospitalized patients. Most often, a clot forms as part of a condition called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). DVT clots typically form in the legs, but can break free and travel through the bloodstream to the lungs and block an artery.
Signs of PE may be similar to other conditions, so it’s important to see a doctor if you notice a few of the following to rule out PE, or confirm it early:
• Unexplained shortness of breath
• Problems breathing
• Chest pain
• Coughing up blood (does not occur in heart or stress problems)
People who have PE also may experience feelings of dread, foreboding, anxiety, lightheadedness, fainting, rapid breathing, sweating, or an increased heart rate.
During your appointment with the doctor, some questions you may want to ask are:
- How is PE diagnosed? Your doctor will consider your medical history, physical exam, and results from tests such as ultrasound, CT scans, lung ventilation/perfusion scan, pulmonary angiography, and blood tests. You doctor may also perform other tests (EKG, echocardiogram, chest x-ray, or chest MRI) to rule out other possible causes.
- What are the risks of PE? PE can cause permanent damage to part of your lung from lack of blood flow to lung tissue, low oxygen levels in your blood, or damage to other organs from not getting enough oxygen.
- How is PE treated? Blood thinners (pill, injection, or IV) or specialized medicine (thrombolytics) may be given in an emergency room or hospital to break up blood clots. Doctors also may use a catheter, a flexible tube inserted into the groin in the upper thigh threaded through a vein to the lung where the clot is located to allow access to a clot for removing the clot, or delivering medicine. When blood thinners can’t be taken, a vena cava filter may be used to keep clots from traveling to the lungs.
- What if the doctor suggests I have surgery? A doctor will rarely recommend surgery to remove a blood clot.
- Any tips for living with PE? After being treated for PE, your doctor may have to stay on a course of blood thinners for three to six months or longer. It is important to follow the doctor’s instructions closely. Take medicines as prescribed, have blood tests done as doctor advises, talk to your doctor before taking any other medicine to make sure it doesn’t increase risk when taking your blood thinners. Make sure you follow any dietary or alcohol consumption guidelines suggested by your doctor. Watch out for signs of bleeding of the brain or digestive system (your doctor can explain this).
- Is there anything I can do to try to prevent increased risk of PE? Know your risk and take steps to lower your risk for DVT. Exercise your leg muscles during long car trips or airplane rides. Get up and walk around when sitting for extended periods. Get out of bed and move around as soon as you can after surgery or being sick. Take medicines as directed by your doctor, and follow up with your doctor as suggested. Compression stockings also can help reduce or prevent chronic swelling in your legs.
This information is not meant to be a replacement for talking with your doctor. Talk with your team of doctors to get the full picture for your particular case.
www.mayoclinic.com Pulmonary Embolism
http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/pe/pe_what.html Pulmonary Embolism: What is Pulmonary Embolism?
Do you have a question about PE? Check out EmpowHER’s Pulmonary Embolism page. Sign-up, post a question, share your story, connect with other women in our community and feel EmpowHERed!
Christine Jeffries is a writer/editor for work and at heart, and lives in a home of testosterone with her husband and two sons. Christine is interested in women’s health and promoting strong women.