Pulmonary embolism, sometimes referred to as PE, is a severe complication that can develop from a deep vein thrombosis. A pulmonary embolism occurs when a piece of the blood clot breaks off and travels to the lungs, blocking the pulmonary artery. This causes a lack of blood flow to the area and can lead to death if it is not treated immediately.
Signs & Symptoms of Pulmonary Embolism
- Coughing up blood
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- Increased heart rate
- Increased rate of breathing
- Decreased blood pressure
- A feeling of anxiety
“Death from PE commonly occurs within 1 hour after the onset of symptoms; therefore, early recognition and diagnosis are priorities.”
The risk factors for pulmonary embolism are the same as the risk factors for DVT. In addition, several other risk factors include:
- Suspected or diagnosed deep vein thrombosis
- Personal or family history of pulmonary embolism
Diagnosis & Treatment
Signs and symptoms alone are not enough to diagnose a pulmonary embolism because they may resemble other conditions. Various imaging techniques are used to visualize the obstructed artery. Blood work can also be done by your doctor.
- Pulmonary angiography
- Ventilation-perfusion scan
- CT scan of chest
- D-dimer blood test
Once diagnosed treatment is initiated as soon as possible.
- Anticoagulant medications — taken for three to six months minimum to prevent any further clots or emboli
- Thrombolytic medications — destroys the blood clot immediately, used in emergency situations
- Surgical removal of the clots/emboli — performed in emergencies
If a person is at risk for a deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism, it is important to follow measures to prevent a DVT from occurring in the first place. If a person does develop a DVT, immediate treatment by a doctor can prevent it from progressing to a pulmonary embolism. See the prevention link for more information.
Smeltzer, S. C., Bare, B. G., Hinkle, J. L., & Cheever, K. H. (2010). Brunner and Suddarth’s textbook of medical surgical nursing (12th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Williams, & Wilkins.