Warning Signs of Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolism occurs suddenly. If you have a condition that puts you at risk for pulmonary embolism—such as immobility, cancer, a leg injury, or heart failure—seek immediate medical care if you have any of the following warning signs:

  • shortness of breath
  • sharp chest pain
  • rapid pulse
  • sweating
  • coughing up bloody mucus
  • fainting the electrical activity of the heart), blood tests, and possibly radionuclide scans (in which a radioactive substance is injected into the bloodstream to produce images of the pulmonary arteries) to help confirm the diagnosis.

In most cases the clot or embolus breaks up on its own and does not need to be removed surgically. Painkillers, oxygen, and blood thinners (to prevent further clots from forming and to help dissolve existing clots) are given while the artery is blocked. Treatment with thrombolytic (clot-dissolving) drugs also may be helpful. In rare cases, surgery to remove the clot may be required if it is very large.

The long-term goal of treatment for pulmonary embolism is to prevent the development of blood clots in the legs and other parts of the body. Usually this involves long-term use of anticoagulant (blood-thinning) drugs such as heparin or warfarin. This is especially important after hip surgery, elective neurosurgery, or a major injury. In cases of chronic, persistent clots, a filter may be installed in a major vein (location of the filter depends on the source of the clots) to prevent clots from traveling through the veins into the pulmonary artery.

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