Anyone who takes a lengthy plane ride or is sedentary for long periods of time due to illness or injury is at risk for a serious complication: a pulmonary embolism.

In this sudden and dangerous event, an embolism, or blood clot, gets stuck in one of the blood vessels in your lungs and blocks blood flow within that organ. Untreated, a pulmonary embolism (also known as a “PE”) can permanently damage your lung or other organs and may even lead to death. That’s why it’s so important to learn more about the causes and signs of a pulmonary embolism.

What Causes Pulmonary Embolisms?

Pulmonary emboli usually occur as the result of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot in the leg that breaks loose and travels to your lung. You are more likely to develop DVT and a pulmonary embolism if you smoke, are obese, take birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, are pregnant, are inactive for long periods of time (such as after surgery), or have a condition such as heart disease or cancer.

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Pulmonary Embolism Symptoms

Symptoms of a pulmonary embolism can include:

  • Chest pain.
  • Coughing (or coughing up blood).
  • Dizziness.
  • Fatigue.
  • Fever.
  • Rapid heartbeat.
  • Shortness of breath — especially during and after physical activity.
  • Swelling and tenderness of the leg.

A pulmonary embolism is considered an emergency. If you suddenly have any of these symptoms, you should immediately call your doctor or 911.

Diagnosing a Pulmonary Embolism

Your physician will use a variety of tests to diagnose a pulmonary embolism. These include:

  • Blood tests.
  • Chest X-ray.
  • Computed tomography (CT) angiogram.*
  • Doppler ultrasound.
  • Echocardiogram.
  • Pulmonary angiogram.
  • Ventilation/Perfusion (VQ) scan.*

* Most common imaging studies for diagnosing pulmonary embolism

Even though pulmonary emboli can be very dangerous, they often respond well to prompt treatment. Your physician might administer medications such as clot-dissolving drugs to break up a clot. He or she might also prescribe anticoagulants (blood thinners) to help prevent the blood from clotting further and forming new clots. In serious cases, you might need surgery to remove a large, life-threatening clot.

Prevention is Key

There’s a lot you can do to help prevent new pulmonary embolisms from occurring. To start, get plenty of physical activity to keep blood flowing smoothly.

You may also want to wear compression stockings, which provide steady pressure to your legs and promote optimal circulation. Elevate your legs when possible. When traveling or sitting for long periods of time, get up and walk around every hour or so and do a few deep knee bends. Flex your ankles, move your legs, and don’t keep your legs crossed.

And drink plenty of water because dehydration can contribute to blood clot formation.

To learn more about pulmonary emboli and their relationship with DVT and pulmonary hypertension, visit the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute website.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About Pulmonary Hypertension

The UPMC Comprehensive Pulmonary Hypertension Program provides complete services for pulmonary hypertension (PH) and other lung diseases. We have specialists available for surgical and nonsurgical treatment of PH and related diseases like heart failure, HIV, and COPD. We have the largest multidisciplinary program in the U.S. and offer cutting-edge diagnostics and individualized treatment plans. We also are leaders in research for new treatments. Find a PH specialist near you.