Pulmonary embolism: Causes, symptoms, and treatment

A pulmonary embolism is a blockage in the pulmonary artery, which supplies the blood to the lungs. It is one of the most common cardiovascular diseases in the United States.

Pulmonary embolism affects around 1 in 1,000 people in the U.S. every year.

The blockage, usually a blood clot, prevents oxygen from reaching the tissues of the lungs. This means it can be life-threatening.

The word “embolism” comes from the Greek émbolos, meaning “stopper” or “plug.”

In a pulmonary embolism, the embolus, forms in one part of the body, it circulates throughout the blood supply, and then it blocks the blood flowing through a vessel in another part of the body, namely the lungs.

An embolus is different from a thrombus, which forms and stays in one place.

Fast facts on pulmonary embolism

Here are some key points about pulmonary embolism. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.

The risk of pulmonary embolism increases with age

Symptoms include chest pain, dizziness, and rapid breathing

The risk of pulmonary embolism is high for individuals who have had a blood clot in the leg or arm

In rare cases, a pulmonary embolism can be caused by amniotic fluid


[chest pain]
Sharp, stabbing pains in the chest may indicate pulmonary embolism.

Symptoms of pulmonary embolism include:

chest pain, a sharp, stabbing pain that might become worse when breathing in

increased or irregular heartbeat


difficulty catching breath, which may develop either suddenly or over time

rapid breathing

a cough, normally dry but possibly with blood, or blood and mucus

Severe symptoms call for immediate emergency medical assistance.

More severe cases may result in shock, loss of consciousness, cardiac arrest, and death.

Exercise is one of the best ways to prevent pulmonary embolism.

Treatments for embolism aim to:

stop the clot from growing

prevent new clots from forming

destroy or remove any existing clot

A first step in treating most embolisms is to treat shock and provide oxygen therapy.

Anticoagulant medications, such as heparin, enoxaparin, or warfarin are usually given to help thin the blood and prevent further clotting.

Clot-busting drugs called thrombolytics may also be administered. However, but these carry a high risk of excessive bleeding. Thrombolytics include Activase, Retavase, and Eminase.

If the patient has low blood pressure, dopamine may be given to increase pressure.

The patient will normally have to take medications regularly for an indefinite amount of time, usually at least 3 months.


A number of measures can reduce the risk of a pulmonary embolism.

A high-risk patient may use anticoagulant drugs such as heparin or warfarin.

Compression of the legs is possible, using anti-embolism compression stockings or pneumatic compression. An inflatable sleeve, glove, or boot holds the affected area and increases pressure when required.

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