Pulmonary Embolism Overview

Pulmonary embolism is the sudden obstruction to an artery in the lung, typically by a blood clot, which has migrated to the lung from a deep vein thrombosis of the leg. This affects more than 300,000 people each year in the United States.

To a smaller degree, obstructions can consist of air bubbles, amniotic fluid, tumors or fat (let loose into circulation when bones are fractured)

When small, the clots can cause lung damage, but when large, clots can prevent circulation of blood to the lungs, which is fatal. Seeking immediate medical attention means the difference between life and death. Read more in this pulmonary embolism patient education guide.

Symptoms include:

  • Sharp pain in the chest, which intensifies with a deep breath, or cough
  • Cough up pink, foamy mucus
  • Sudden shortness of breath
  • Tachycardia (rapid heart rate)
  • Palpitations
  • Faintness or lightheadedness
  • Anxiety

Risk of occurrence stems from:

  • Inactivity – bedridden, sitting on long car or plane rides, post-surgery
  • Drugs – hormone therapy, contraceptive pills
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy
  • Over 70 years of age
  • Certain medical conditions-stroke, cancer, congestive heart failure
  • Surgery in the recent past- involving abdomen, brain, hips and legs
  • Familial tendency


Written by Barbara Hales, MD

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