The risk of a pulmonary embolism: What you need to know

Pulmonary embolisms, or blood clots that can suddenly develop in a patient's lungs, are life-threatening emergencies. These clots interfere with the body's ability to remove carbon dioxide from its system and process oxygen. It can also block the blood flow from the heart to the lungs. Patients can develop severe difficulty breathing and -- if the clot is large enough -- even die.

Sometimes, pulmonary embolisms strike without warning. Many times, however, there are risk factors that doctors can use to assess the possibility and early signs of a problem that can be detected. Prompt diagnosis and treatment are the only keys to preventing disaster.

Who is at risk of having one?

Doctors should screen any patient who has a clotting disorder, smokers, cancer victims, pregnant women, people on certain medications and anyone undergoing major surgery for embolisms. Patients who are immobile due to strokes, obesity or severe illness are also considered high-risk for pulmonary embolisms.

What are the signs of an embolism?

Patients may complain of sharp pains in their chests, particularly when trying to take a breath. They may also have difficulty breathing which gets worse when they move around. Some will sweat or faint, while others will report a sensation of panic or anxiety. Coughing may or may not be present.

What type of misdiagnosis can occur?

Patients who arrive at hospitals complaining of these kinds of symptoms are frequently misdiagnosed. Many are even observed for a while and then sent home if the doctor decides that they are simply suffering an anxiety attack. Others are given asthma treatments under the mistaken belief that a chronic disorder is behind the sudden problem.

When this happens, treatment gets delayed and it's very easy for a patient to take a turn for the worse. That's why patients and their family members need to be proactive if they suspect that the doctor's diagnosis is wrong. Bring up the question of a pulmonary embolism if you think it is a possibility and insist that a diagnostic test be run -- the life you save could be your own!

Source:, "Pulmonary Embolism," Charles Patrick Davis, accessed April 12, 2018

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