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What is Pulmonary Embolism: Symptoms, Risk Factors and Treatments

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What is Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolism happens when arteries in the lung become blocked, usually by blood clots that have traveled to the lungs from elsewhere in the body. Blood clots in the lower extremities are known as "deep vein thrombosis" or DVT and in most cases dissolve on their own. When they don't and end up in the lungs, they can cause sudden death.

Blood clots are not the only thing that can cause pulmonary embolism. Amniotic fluid, fat, air, bone marrow, foreign substances, and tumor tissue can also block arteries.

Pulmonary embolism can happen to anyone, healthy or not, and usually involve more than one artery.


As with most health conditions, signs and symptoms vary in onset and severity from patient to patient. If you experience any of the below symptoms especially in combination, see your doctor immediately.

  • a sudden cough that produces blood in the mucus or visible blood or phelgm that is lightly streaked with blood
  • sudden onset of shortness of breath at rest or with exertion
  • splinting of ribs with breathing (sharp pain)
  • lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting
  • weak pulse
  • excessive sweating, rapid breathing, and rapid heart rate
  • leg swelling
  • clammy or bluish-tinged skin
  • chest pain under the breastbone or on side which may worsen at night or by breathing deeply, coughing, eating, bending or stooping, and may radiate (spread) to the shoulder, arm, neck, jaw, or other area
  • Having any one or a combination of these symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have pulmonary embolus. These symptoms can be caused by other illnesses or pre-existing conditions. Only a doctor will be able to tell you. Regardless, any of these symptoms require immediate evaluation and treatment. In the case of pulmonary embolism, not addressing the issue can lead to death.

    Blood clots have been known to develop in people following:

  • prolonged bed rest or inactivity (ex: travel)
  • smoking
  • being overweight
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    We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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