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Pulmonary Embolism: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

March 25th, 2014 | Posted by vanfirstaid in Circulatory Emergency

Pulmonary embolism is a fatal medical condition that requires emergency medical services as soon as possible. It is when there is a sudden blockage in one or more lung arteries. It is usually caused by a blood clot in any part of the body, most commonly the leg, that breaks loose and travels to the major blood vessel of the lung through the bloodstream. An estimated half of all the people who experience pulmonary embolism show no symptoms, although the commonly associated symptoms will be discussed later.

Pulmonary embolism may occur to anyone, even in healthy individuals. In cases of multiple or large clots, it may result to death. Other less serious complications include lasting damage to the affected lung, decreased levels of oxygen in the blood and damage to the other body organs from the decreased oxygen distributed to the organs. Treatment is usually aimed at dissolving the clots and prevention of other clots from forming.

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Causes of Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolism is often a complication from deep vein thrombosis (DVT), where blood clots originating from the deep veins of body, frequently the legs, travel to the arteries in the lungs, although it should be noted that not all cases of DVT result to pulmonary embolism. The following may also cause pulmonary embolism:

  • Other substances can form blockages within the blood vessels of the lung itself
    • Fat from within the marrow of a broken bone
    • Amniotic fluid
    • Part of a tumour
    • Air bubbles

Risk Factors for Pulmonary Embolism

The following factors are known to increase chances of developing pulmonary embolism in individuals:

  • Inactivity for prolonged periods, e.g. bed rest or long flights or car trips
  • Recent surgery involving the brain, abdomen, pelvic or legs
  • Recent fractures
  • Certain illnesses such as chronic heart disease, high blood pressure, paralysis, cancer or severe infection
  • Conditions such as heart attack, stroke
  • Taking medications such as, birth control pills or hormone therapy
  • Pregnancy and childbirth, especially if caesarean section
  • Family history of pulmonary embolism
  • Smoking

Symptoms of Pulmonary Embolism

In half of pulmonary embolism cases, it is asymptomatic. In the other half that reported symptoms, the symptoms include:

  • Sudden, inexplicable shortness of breath
  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing with or without blood
  • Arrhythmia
  • Increased heart rate
  • Swelling of the leg or along a vein
  • Pain and tenderness in the leg
  • Anxiety
  • Light-headedness or syncope
  • Wheezing
  • Sweating excessively

Treatment for Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolism requires immediate medical treatment to avoid complications from progressing. Medications or surgical procedures may be required to thin the blood or remove the clot. Treatment for pulmonary embolism includes:

  • Medications
    • Anticoagulants
    • Clot dissolvers (thrombolytics)
    • Surgical procedures
      • Clot removal
      • Vein filter
      • Surgery
      • In cases where there is no pulse detected, follow protocol for CPR.

Disclaimer: This article does not provide medical advice or treatment. The information given should not be used for self-diagnosis. Seek medical attention when necessary. To learn more about to how to give CPR in cases of medical emergencies such as pulmonary embolism, enrol in first aid and CPR classes with an American or Canadian provider.


Pulmonary embolism (2013). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved September 27, 2013, from

Pulmonary Embolism – Topic Overview. 2011. WebMD. Retrieved September 27, 2013, from

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