What is a Pulmonary Embolism?

A pulmonary embolism is a sudden blockage of a major blood vessel in the lung. They are typically caused by small blood clots which form in other parts of the body (usually the legs). The clot then breaks loose and travels to the lung. A pulmonary embolism can be life-threatening, but prompt treatment is crucial in preventing serious complications or even death.

You have a higher risk of getting a pulmonary embolism if there is a family history of blood clots. Heart failure, cancer, severe infections, recent surgery or trauma to the legs and belly, serious burns, use of hormone medication, smoking, pregnancy, and being obese are also risk factors. The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to get a pulmonary embolism. However, even people with no known risk factors suffer from this condition.

One of the most common causes of this condition in otherwise healthy people is being inactive for a long period of time. This happens during long car trips or airplane flights. If you have been sick or have had surgery and are unable to move for a long period of time, you are putting yourself at risk. People over 70 years old also are at higher risk even if they are healthy.

Since the symptoms of a pulmonary embolism are similar to those of a heart attack, panic attack or pneumonia, it is not always easy to diagnose. Symptoms include shortness of breath, sharp chest pain made worse when you take a deep breath or cough, lightheadedness, excessive sweating, a cough with bloody tinged mucus, and a fast heart rate. If these symptoms come on suddenly or are severe, you need to seek medical attention immediately.

Once you have had a pulmonary embolism you are much more likely to get another one. Your doctor may prescribe blood thinners to help reduce your risk of getting the condition again. It is important to take these medications as prescribed because blood thinners can increase your risk of bleeding.

Utilizing the following tips can help prevent a pulmonary embolism from occurring in the first place. When taking a long trip, either by car or airplane, walk around about every hour. If that is not feasible, you can exercise your feet and legs while sitting in your seat by flexing and rotating them. Keep yourself hydrated by drinking extra fluids, but avoid alcohol or caffeine which leads to fluid loss. If you are inactive due to surgery, get up and move around as soon as you possibly can.

About 33% of people who have a pulmonary embolism that goes untreated do not survive. However, when the condition is treated promptly, the survival rate increases dramatically. Follow the above tips to try to prevent the condition in the first place. And, just as important, be aware of the symptoms because a pulmonary embolism does not have to be fatal.

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