Key Points about Pulmonary Embolism (PE)

  • There are a variety of conditions that can increase your risk for developing pulmonary embolism, such as kidney disease or heart disease.
  • Diagnosis of PE typically includes blood tests and imaging tests.
  • Treatment for PE may include medication management or surgery.
Common related conditions
Heart (Cardiovascular) Disease

Overview

Pulmonary embolism – or PE – is when one of your pulmonary (lung) arteries is blocked. This condition can be life-threatening and must be treated immediately.

Pulmonary embolism causes

A pulmonary embolism occurs when a clump of material gets stuck in an artery of your lung. In most cases, this material is a blood clot from the deep veins of your legs, which is known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). You may have one PE at a time, or multiple PE.

Pulmonary embolism risk factors

Factors that can increase your risk for developing a pulmonary embolism are:

  • Cancer of the brain, ovary, pancreas, colon, stomach, lung or kidney
  • Certain inherited blood clotting disorders
  • Coronavirus (COVID-19)
  • Having a family history of blood clots or PE
  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Surgery

Pulmonary embolism symptoms

Signs and symptoms of pulmonary embolism can include:

  • Bloody cough
  • Clammy skin
  • Dizziness
  • Fever
  • Pain or swelling in your calf
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sharp pain in your chest, especially when you breathe in deeply
  • Shortness of breath that comes on suddenly and worsens with exercise
  • Unusual sweating

Pulmonary embolism diagnosis

Your cardiologist will use one or more of the following tests to diagnose this condition:

  • Blood tests. Your doctor may check your blood with the clot-dissolving substance D dimer. If your D dimer levels are high, this could mean you have a PE.
  • Complete physical exam. Your doctor will perform a comprehensive physical exam, including asking about your personal and family health history.
  • Imaging tests. Your cardiologist may order imaging tests – such as a chest X-ray, ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT) pulmonary angiography, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or ventilation-perfusion scan (V/Q scan) – to obtain detailed images of your heart and valves.

Pulmonary embolism treatment

Treatment for pulmonary embolism may include:

  • Medication management. Your cardiologist may prescribe one or more blood thinning or clot-dissolving medications to help treat your PE.
  • Surgical procedure. If medications are not effective or if your PE is severe, you may need to undergo surgery to remove the clot or have a vein filter placed to help reduce your chance of further clots.

When to seek care

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing a cardiologist for more specialized treatment.