Risks and Symptoms of Pulmonary Embolism

X-Ray Image of Pulmonary Embolism. BSIP/UIG/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

What a Pulmonary Embolism is:

A pulmonary embolism is defined as the sudden blockage of an artery in the lung.

Most often, a pulmonary embolism occurs when a blood clot originating in the leg or pelvis breaks loose and travels through the bloodstream toward the lung. Once there, it lodges in an artery and blocks blood flow to the area. Less often, a fat globule, air bubble, or a group of tumor cells large enough to block a blood vessel is the culprit.

Risks Associated with a Pulmonary Embolism:

If an obstruction blocks blood flow to the lung, death can follow immediately or occur within days. Smaller blockages might not lead to death, but can damage lung tissue and/or the heart.

Symptoms of a Pulmonary Embolism:

Shortness of breath and a rapid heart rate are the most common symptoms of a pulmonary embolism, and may be accompanied by sharp chest pain under the breastbone or on one side, which might radiate to the neck, jaw, shoulder or arm.

Other symptoms of a pulmonary embolism may include:

  • A cough that begins suddenly and possibly produces bloody sputum
  • Wheezing
  • Clammy skin
  • Pelvic pain
  • Leg pain in one or both legs
  • Swelling in the legs (lower extremities)
  • Low blood pressure
  • Weak or absent pulse
  • Lightheadedness or fainting
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety

Pulmonary Embolism Risk Factors:

Blood clots in the deep veins of the leg, a condition known as deep vein thrombosis, is the biggest risk factor for a pulmonary embolism.

Prolonged immobility due to recent surgery or chronic illnesses such as heart attack or heart failure, stroke or lung disease puts one at risk for a pulmonary embolism as well. Other risk factors include smoking, cancer and birth control pill use by women 35 years old and over.

What to do in Case of a Pulmonary Embolism:

If you suspect that you or someone you are with has suffered a pulmonary embolism, don't wait to see if symptoms get better or worse. Call 911 or seek treatment immediately at the closest hospital.


MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Pulmonary Embolus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000132.htm Accessed January 2015.

Mt. Auburn Hospital, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. Pulmonary Embolism. Accessed January 2015.

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