How to Spot the Warning Signs of a Pulmonary Embolism

X-ray of lungs to detect pulmonary embolism blood clot

A pulmonary embolism (PE) is a blood clot that blocks an artery in your lungs, preventing the blood from following its normal path. If you or a loved one has had a pulmonary embolism, you understand the severity of the medical condition ― PE can cause lung damage and reduce oxygen levels in the body. Usually, this type of clot starts in a vein deep in the legs when a person does move around for a short time ― as demonstrated on long flights or during assigned medical bed rests. When these blood clots form, doctors refer to the condition as Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). If the clot breaks loose and travels to the lungs, it is then referred to as a PE.

Symptoms of a Pulmonary Embolism

Symptoms of a PE vary based on the size and location of the clot. Here is what to look out for:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Coughing up blood
  • Abnormal sweating
  • Nails or lips turning blue
  • Severe pain in the chest and/or back
  • Loss of consciousness

The best way to prevent a PE may be to watch for the signs of deep vein thrombosis. Those include:

  • Swelling in the arms and legs, especially if the extremity becomes warmer than usual
  • Veins in the arms and legs that appear larger than usual
  • Pain in your legs when you stand or walk
  • Redness or discoloration in the arms or legs

Diagnosing a Pulmonary Embolism

If your vein doctor suspects a PE, he or she will start with a physical examination, looking for swelling, discoloration, or unusual warmth to the touch. A variety of diagnostic tests may be used as well, including ultrasounds, x-rays, and blood tests. If a clot has been present but has since broken down, a blood test can pick up a protein called D dimer. Other common steps in the examination may include:

  • The use of computed tomographic angiography (CTPA). This is a type of x-ray that involves injecting a contrast dye into the veins to show the blood vessels in the lungs.
  • A ventilation/perfusion scan (V/Q). If a CTPA is not available or not medically appropriate for the patient, a V/Q scan uses a radioactive material to show how air and blood are flowing through the lungs. If air is moving normally, but blood flow is low to a particular area, a clot may be the cause.
  • The use of pulmonary angiography, which is the most accurate test to determine if a PE is present. If previous tests are inconclusive, a pulmonary angiography may be the next step. The procedure involves inserting a catheter into the groin and up into the arteries in the lungs. Dye is injected into the catheter to illuminate the vessels in the lungs.
  • An MRI if the patient is pregnant or cannot tolerate the contrast dye used in other procedures.
  • An echocardiogram which presents an image of the heart via ultrasound. While it can’t tell your doctor whether you have a PE, it can show whether the heart is under strain.

Treating a Pulmonary Embolism

Blood thinners, also known as anticoagulants, are the most common treatment for a pulmonary embolism. Warfarin and heparin are the two most common. Warfarin is taken orally in pill form to treat and prevent blood clots, whereas heparin is given intravenously or by injection, keeping future clots from developing.

Anticoagulants do not dissolve any clots already present; typically, the body does that on its own over time. Anticoagulants do serve two important purposes, however, they keep the embolism from getting any larger and prevent any new clots from forming. These treatments are given in the hospital, and how long you have to stay depends on the severity of your condition.

Meet With a Pulmonary Embolism Expert at Northern Illinois Vein Clinic

A pulmonary embolism is a medical emergency, so if you experience any of these signs and symptoms, seek medical attention right away. Northern Illinois Vein Clinic aims to ensure individuals know what to look for, providing better help for themselves or someone else developing this problem.

Appointment Request Form

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Image: MDGraphics