How to Tell If You Have a DVT

Recognize Deep Vein Thrombosis Before It Becomes a Pulmonary Embolism

Doctor examining woman's calf
PhotoAlto/Michele Constantini/PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections/Getty Images

A deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a blood clot in a vein deep below the surface of the skin. The clots can develop anywhere in the body but usually occur in the legs.

It can be hard to recognize a DVT; many of the symptoms resemble other conditions. If you think you may have a DVT, call your doctor immediately. If you think you're having a PE, Call 911.


  • Swelling in an arm or leg, or along a vein
  • Pain or tenderness in the leg, which may only be felt when standing or walking
  • Increased warmth in the area that's swollen or painful
  • Redness or purple coloring on the skin near the swelling or tenderness

DVT can happen spontaneously or after surgery. DVT is more likely to happen with lack of movement and is more common when stuck in bed or on a plane for long periods. DVT can also be associated with injury, even minor ones.

Pulmonary Embolism (PE)

If a DVT breaks loose and travels to the lungs, it is called a pulmonary embolism (PE). A PE is a potentially fatal condition and the reason DVT is so scary in the first place. Unfortunately, sometimes the first indication of a DVT is when it develops into a PE.The symptoms of PE may include:

  • Unexplained shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing and fast heart rate (pulse)
  • Pain when taking a deep breath
  • Coughing up blood

Some patients with pulmonary embolism report feeling short of breath with minor exercise such as just walking from one room to another.

In many cases, it comes on slowly enough that the patients didn't realize what the problem was until the PE had become life-threatening.

It's possible for a patient with a PE to feel like he or she is having a heart attack. That doesn't change how you should react. Anytime you feel short of breath for reasons that don't make sense or are experiencing pain or heaviness in the chest, you should call 911.

If you noticed a loved one apparently getting winded easily, but otherwise seems fine, encourage him or her to at least call the doctor.


Deep Vein Thrombosis | National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). (2014). Retrieved 30 January 2018.

van Stralen, K.J., F.R. Rosendaal and C.J. Doggen. Minor injuries as a risk factor for venous thrombosis. Archives of internal medicine. 14 Jan 2008.