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

  • Cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased rate of breathing
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Sweating
  • A feeling of anxiety

“Death from PE commonly occurs within 1 hour after the onset of symptoms; therefore, early recognition and diagnosis are priorities.”

Risk Factors

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.