You must have heard about people having a heart attack, where there is a blood clot blocking the blood supply to the heart. Similar to a heart attack, pulmonary embolism is a lung attack, where a blood clot is blocking the blood supply to a certain part of the lung. In most cases, the clots are small and are not deadly, but they can damage the lung. But if the clot is large and stops blood flow to the lung, it can be deadly.
Most of the time, the blood clot blocking the lung vessels are from blood clots from the leg, in a condition called deep vein thrombosis. Theclot from the legs can break loose and travel to the lungs. Other things can also block an artery, such as tumors, air bubbles, amniotic fluid, or fat that is released into the blood vessels when a bone is broken.
Anything that increases the risk for forming blood clots also increase the risk of pulmonary embolism. These factors increase the risk for blood clot development:
- Being inactive for long periods. This can happen when you have to stay in bed after surgery or a serious illness, or when you sit for a long time on a flight or car trip.
- Recent surgery that involved the legs or belly.
- Some diseases, such as cancer, heart failure, lung disease, or a severe infection.
- Pregnancy and childbirth (especially if you had a cesarean section).
- Taking birth control pills or hormone therapy.
- Age. Older people tend to have a higher risk.
- Some people are born with blood that clots too quickly.
Pulmonary embolism is difficult to diagnose because the symptoms may occur with or are similar to other conditions, such as heart attack, panic attack or pneumonia. The symptoms may include:
- Sudden shortness of breath.
- Sudden sharp chest pain.
- Rapid heart rate.
- Rapid breathing.
- Coughing up blood.
Pulmonary embolism is also a condition commonly found in travelers because a long period of inactivity, such as sitting a long time on a flight or car trip. This type can be prevented with these measures:
- Wear compression stockings if you are at risk for deep vein thrombosis.
- Avoid wearing short, tight socks or crossing your legs for long periods.
- Get up and walk around every half hour to an hour.
- If you can’t easily move around, pump your feet up and down by pulling your toes up toward your knees then pointing them down, do this frequently every half hour.
- Avoid sitting with your legs crossed.
- Drink extra fluids.
- Avoid drinks that have alcohol or caffeine in them, because they cause you to lose fluids. Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, and many sodas.
If you are unsure of the risk and plan to undertake lengthy travel, you should discuss it with your doctor. Your doctor might recommend you take some medication or an injection prior traveling to prevent blood clots.