Pulmonary embolism 

Introduction 

A pulmonary embolism is a blockage in the artery that transports blood to the lungs 

A pulmonary embolism is a blockage in the pulmonary artery, which is the blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the lungs.

This blockage – usually a blood clot – is potentially life threatening, as it can prevent blood from reaching your lungs.

Signs and symptoms

The symptoms of a pulmonary embolism can sometimes be difficult to recognise because they can vary between individuals. However, the main symptoms include:

  • chest pain – a sharp, stabbing pain that may be worse when you breathe in
  • shortness of breath – this can come on suddenly or develop gradually
  • coughing – this is usually dry, but may include coughing up blood or mucus that contains blood
  • feeling faint, dizzy or passing out

You should visit your GP as soon as possible if you have a combination of these symptoms.

If your symptoms are particularly severe, dial 999 immediately and ask for an ambulance.

Read more about the symptoms of a pulmonary embolism and diagnosing a pulmonary embolism.

Why it happens

A pulmonary embolism is often caused by a blood clot travelling up from one of the deep veins in your legs to your heart and lungs.

A blood clot in one of the deep veins of the legs is known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). DVT can occur for no apparent reason, but it often develops after long periods of inactivity, such as during a long-haul flight or if you are ill in hospital.

DVT can also occur during pregnancy, as a result of some medical conditions, such as cancer or heart failure, or if the wall of a blood vessel becomes damaged.

Read more about the causes of a pulmonary embolism.

How pulmonary embolisms are treated

Pulmonary embolisms are treated with anticoagulant medicines. These stop the blood clot getting bigger while your body slowly reabsorbs it, and reduce your risk of further clots developing.

If you are diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism, you will normally be given regular anticoagulant injections for about five days to begin with. You will also be prescribed an anticoagulant tablet called warfarin to take for several months.

As part of your treatment, you will need to have regular blood tests to check that the dose of warfarin you are receiving is correct. If the dose is too high, you may experience bleeding, and if it is too low, you may have further blood clots.

Keeping mobile will also help you maintain good blood circulation and prevent further blood clots forming.

Read more about treating a pulmonary embolism.

Preventing a pulmonary embolism

There are a number of methods that may be recommended to prevent a pulmonary embolism if you are at risk of developing blood clots.

These include:

  • taking anticoagulant tablets, such as warfarin
  • wearing compression stockings or using compression devices
  • avoiding prolonged periods of inactivity
  • a healthy lifestyle – such as stopping smoking (if you smoke) and eating a healthy, balanced diet that is low in fat and includes plenty of fruit and vegetables

Read more about preventing a pulmonary embolism.

Page last reviewed: 02/10/2013

Next review due: 02/10/2015

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Comments

The 15 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

GemJarr said on 27 August 2014

I am 19 years old and I was just diagnosed with a P.E. I first went into hospital after having pains in my chest and severe difficulty breathing. I was given an ECG and bloods were taken. The results from my blood test suggested a clot in the lungs. I spent many days in hospital where I had various tests such as regular bloods, a CT scan, chest x-ray, an ultrasound and an echogram. The results determined that the clot had formed around the artery linking my lungs to my heart and as such was putting some strain on my heart. I was released from hospital and am currently on warfarin and continuing injections in my tummy. Its a very scary thing to experience especially when i'm usually a young fit, healthy girl. I'm on the road to recovery just praying this wont effect me for the rest of my life.

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cb24x said on 04 August 2014

Hi i was wondering if anyone can help me im 21 and im 35 weeks pregnant ive just been diagnosed wih a blood clot in my lung. Im on clexine injections but today my chest feels really heavy and its sore when im breathing , has anyone had this before im also scared what will happen during the birth?

Thanks in advance

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henuser said on 10 April 2014

I became wheezy. Went to my G.P and told I had acute bronchitis . After a load of different antibiotics I was feeling worse. I would phone up but couldn't get past the receptionist. She would say I will get the doctor to get you another prescription and sick note. I wanted to feel better. I was getting pain in my left calf and foot swelling. Phoned the G.P and the receptionist said if I was that worried don't you think you had better go to A&E. I explained that I felt to ill to drive to A&E. So she said that I had to go if I felt ill. My husband being a epileptic and no family near me. I went to bed as I was breathless. My husband complaining that he hadn't had a cooked meal for weeks ( I had been like this now 10 weeks). I went got in my car went to the food store where people asked if I was alright as I looked grey. Having only collected three items. I couldn't even lift them into the car. The trolley boy asked if he could get someone to help me. I sat and cried driving myself to hospital. I had a DVT in the left leg. Doppler machine confirmed. had a shower the next day and past out in the bath. Became more breathless. My doctor asked for a sputum test, taking it to the lab I met my doctor. He came up to me and commented how ill I looked and how breathless I was. I saw him two days latter after receiving a phone call from him saying he was worried about me. I am on clexane for life and have to see the respiratory consultant regarding the fact I have a P.E
that was on the 8th April 014. My appointment is 6th May 2014. Mean while I remain breathless and on clexane injections daily. having had three DVT's in the past both legs. My first was having a birch birth in half an hour. I was slim when I had my first DVT. So now I am praying.

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rgcann said on 07 March 2014

Woke up Jan 2012 with a pain so sharp under my right ribcage that I cried. Took myself off to A&E and,although I tested positive for blood clots, it was decided that I had a lung infection and was given antibiotics. 2 months and another course of antibiotics later, I was so short of breath I couldn't move faster than a snail's pace. My GP sent me straight to hospital where the doctor there was going to send me home with nothing or more antibiotics! Luckily the Registrar noted that there was no active infection and I was finally diagnosed with multiple blood clots on each lung which had been festering since December. After 7 months I came off the Warfarin but 2 years since this all began they cannot find a cause. I assume I did have an infection initially because the antibiotics cured the pain after 5 days but it's a worry that PEs were dismissed especially after testing positive for them.

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Weston7_7 said on 27 February 2014

I am a 31 year old male. I got admitted to hospital in early January with Pancreatitis & spent around 6 weeks in hospital, most of it lying in my bed. I was told to wear my white stocking by the nurse's and probably did 75% the my stay.
Last week I started to feel a sharp pain in the right of my chest. I also had a shortness of breath on occasions & it hurt when I coughed and laughed. I went to my gp after 5 days, she listened to my chest & said it 'felt tight'. She said I may have some fluid on my lung or it may be inflamed. I had to go for an xray at the local walk in centre but was told my results would take 7 days to come through. Obviously I wasn't happy about this as I was in more and more pain. I struggled on for 2 days and phoned the local surgery to see if my results were in, they were but nobody was in to view them. I lost patience and took myself to a&e as I knew my body and knew something was wrong.
The xray came back that there was no issues. Then a blood test was done which ruled out a return of pancreatitis. I was thinking to myself I was imagining the pain but a consultant said she wanted to do a blood test to see if I had a blood clot on my lung. The result came back that I have. I'm just grateful that the consultant did her job better than my gp & got me tested correctly. I have got to take blood thinning injections for 5 days then blood thinning tablets. I have been through the ringer the last 2 months but hopefully this episode will be my last.

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LadyE77 said on 05 February 2014

my heart goes out to you pms66, losing your husband must be devasting, I lost my father to a pulmonary embolism in March 2012. He had a chesty cough for a few weeks ( he had asthma too and presumed that's why he was short of breath too) he had a pain in his chest so saw docs sent him for a scan which came up with chest infection. He was resting at home for a while. He didn't come to my daughters 2nd birthday as he felt too poorly. He died the next day, my poor mum finding him on the
floor when she got home from work. He was 68. The coroners report revealed pleurisy and pulmonary embolism ( probably caused by inactivity too). It's interesting to read all the comments here, I just wish my fathers death could have been prevented. I had no idea it could run in the family either. I get worried because i have bad varicose veins on my foot and my leg often feels tingly. I saw a doc about 4 years ago and they said nothing, it just looks unsightly which is why i went. After I gave birth to my 2nd child in Dec 2012 the hospital gave me tights to prevent DVT and I had to have a course injections too that you self administer. I thought there must have been an increase in DVT as I wasn't offered anything with my first child born in 2010, think everyone gets the tights and the injections are for high risk or family history.

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Chippy193 said on 30 December 2013

I had been suffering with a cough for some weeks, which I was not particularly concerned about, and then one Sunday while returning from walking my dog I suffered from extreme shortness of breath. I was seen by my G.P. at Swanage Hospital who gave me an ECG and chest x-ray sent me to Poole Hospital.
The hospital diagnosed a chest infection and prescribed a course of antibiotics. I was also given an appointment for an exercise stress test the following week. The day before the test I felt really week but was advised to attend if I could. The next day I felt fine drove to Poole, went down the High Street to do some shopping, then went to the hospital and parked in the multi-storey car park. I walked to the lift, pressed the button, and the next thing I remember was coming to on the lift floor.
I was able to slowly make my way to the hospital clinic where I was immediately put on a bed and given oxygen and aspirin. I then spent some time in hospital while they diagnosed the blood clots and put me on a course of clot busting drugs the on warfarin while they worked out my recommended dose. At no time had I considered myself as feeling unwell, I just had a cough, and felt a bit of a fraud being in hospital at all. It was only when I had my final appointment with the Consultant and he told me "it was touch and go there for a while" that I realised how ill I'd actually been.
I have to say that I cannot speak highly enough for the care that I received at all times from the NHS.

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pms66 said on 30 November 2013

3 years ago my husband got a bad cough, cold and chest infection. After a few days in bed the symptoms were not getting better so he went to the doctors. He feinted at the doctors and after taking his blood pressure and asking a few questions he came home with antibiotics. A week later, after a lot of coughing fits, the chest infection had got better but he still felt very tired. On Sunday 19th Dec he came downstairs and feinted and came around again. I called an ambulance but he died on the way to hospital. Only the autopsy revealed he had a DVT causing a pulmonary embolism. He didn't ever smoke and was generally a healthy 44 year old.

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Ashleebrawn said on 11 November 2013

I got a dvt from child birth that I did not no what it was and left it. It felt like I had been punched in the bum. Three weeks later I formed a stitch like feeling in my chest that got worse within three days I could not walk up the stairs or pick my baby up phoned an ambulance up and found out I had 2 or one in each lung and a bad infection so please don't leave it like I did x x

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Doretha123 said on 17 October 2013

I developed several blood clots on my lungs three to four weeks ago after having my left leg in plaster for five weeks. I wanted to comment as some of my symptoms were very different. On the night of my admission the symptoms came on suddenly and without warning as I stood up from sitting. I had a headache on the right side of
my head, a cold and painful right shoulder, and a tender but painful area under my right breast which felt almost like it was very badly bruised. In addition I felt incredibly nauseous to the point I felt I would vomit up the world (though I was not sick at any point) and I also felt as if someone had struck a match to my toes as I felt so hot and this spread up my body, this was alternated with feeling cold and clamy. The shortness of breath initially was mild (I thought I was having a panic attack) it was only when I got to A&E and I triex to get up without oxygen that I realised how badly my breathing had been affected

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gezatholme1942 said on 03 October 2013

The NHS choices website is excellent in helping you to understand any health problems. It of course needs to be used in conjunction with your doctors diagnosis but all round excellent.

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midgee said on 22 September 2013

I snapped my patella tendon a few months ago and had a full length cast fitted. It was too tight and caused muscle cramp.This caused a p.e. from my leg to travel through my organs to my lung. I suffered stabbing pains in my back and side and shortness of breath. A and E took one look at my cast and symptons and admitted me on the spot for one week. A c.t. scan showed a large clot on my lung. Be aware of the symptons of a blot clot!! You should receive a leaflet from the "plaster room" when you have a cast fitted. I didn't !! I nearly died because I didn't know the symptons.

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Gillflower said on 30 January 2013

I had a fall and broke a bone in my foot. I was put in a temporary cast up to my knee and the following day this was replaced with a knee high walking boot. After a day or so I began to feel short of breath but thought it was due to walking with crutches and the after effects of falling downstairs in the first place. As it was Christmas I carried on but became more and more short of breath. Climbing the stairs was like climbing Everest. Eventually after 6 days I went back to the Minor Injuries Unit where I gone with my foot injury. They took a heart reading, blood pressure etc. the next thing I knew was they had called an ambulance and I was taken to A & E at another hospital where I was diagnosed with a very large saddle embolism and some smaller ones. I spent 6 days there before being discharged on warfarin for the next 6 months. I was very lucky as by the time I got to A & E my condition had deteriorated. It is taking longer than I expected to feel anything like normal. I still get tired quickly and my chest hurts especially when out in the recent cold weather. I'm hoping to dispense with the walking boot this week after seeing the orthopaedic chap. It is good to read other people's experiences and to know that the things I feel are a normal part of healing.

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justingirl69 said on 16 October 2012

Hi i'd been complaining about pains in my legs for a while , i went to hospital and the doctors and they said it was down to my weight and stress and i was given anti depressant tablets. months later i started getting pains in my chest and getting shortness of breath. it turned out to be blood clots in both my lungs{ pulmanary embolism}. i think this could have been avoided i told my doctor and the hospital that it runs in the family, { my sister, uncle,auntieand cousins } all have had blood clots, yet they chose not to look into this.

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wendy42 said on 15 October 2012

I was diagnosed with a PE after having taken HRT for approx. 18 months. At the time I was unaware of any problem with my blood. After treatment (as described above) I found out that there is a history of DVTs in the family. A sister & 2 cousins in Australia. My doctors then tested my blood & I have Factor V Leiden which is Protein C resistant. Surely a simple blood test by my doctor (before prescribing HRT) could possibly have prevented the PE. I also think that again, a simple blood test on all young women before being presribed 'the pill' (the cause of my sister's DVT). It seems the culture is to prescribe 'medication' before checking a person's suitability for it. Surely this would save the NHS money as well as the distress, or possible dire consequences for families affected.
Having lived in France for 6 years we were sent for routine blood tests regularly, where they have specialised centres. Have also travelled to Australia where they also have specialised clinics for Haemotology .

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'I got DVT from flying'

Mark Pownall developed deep vein thrombosis (DVT) on a long-haul flight from New Orleans to London

Women on a plance

Preventing DVT when you travel

Reduce your risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) during a long journey, including advice on leg exercises and flight socks