Respiratory Diseases

Pulmonary Embolism Signs and Symptoms



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A pulmonary embolism is caused by an obstruction of the arteries that carry blood to the lungs. About 90% of these obstructions are caused by blood clots which travel to the lungs from the deep veins in your lower legs. The clot will then stick in the smaller arteries leading in to your lungs. When this happens, the vital circulation which allows oxygen to get in to your bloodstream is impeded. A less common cause of a pulmonary embolism is known as a fat embolism. Fat embolisms typically begin at the site of a bone fracture, and travel up the vasculature, causing a blockage similar to a blood clot.

A pulmonary embolism is a medical emergency. If it is not treated promptly and efficiently, it can be fatal. Because of this risk is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of a pulmonary embolism. In order to be treated properly, one must be first diagnosed correctly. Unfortunately, the signs and symptoms of pulmonary embolism can be somewhat nonspecific and difficult to identify.

One of the most common symptoms seen in people who are experiencing a pulmonary embolism is shortness of breath. As the clot obstructs the blood flow to the lung, the exchange of oxygen from the lung to the bloodstream is impeded. This impaired gas exchange leads directly to the shortness of breath experienced by the patient.

In addition to being short of breath, it is common for breathing to become rapid as well. Medically this is known as tachypnea. If a doctor listens to be lungs of a person with a pulmonary embolism with a stethoscope, there is often a distinct sound pattern known as rales. This is heard in approximately half of all cases of pulmonary embolisms.

Coughing is experienced in approximately a third of people with a pulmonary embolisms. A smaller percent of people will cough up some amount of blood as well. Blood that is coughed up during a pulmonary embolism is rarely large in volume. Typically it is only enough to cause slight streaks or a reddish tinge to a persons sputum or saliva.

Chest pain is a common symptom experienced during a pulmonary embolism. In addition to chest pain, heart rate is often increased. A doctor listening to the heart sounds of a person with a pulmonary embolism will often be able to hear an extra sound in addition to the normal "lub-dub". This is known as a "4th" heart sound and is unusual, but not specific to a pulmonary embolism.

The last significant sign seen during a pulmonary embolism is fever. Fever is not a common sign. It is present in only approximately 15% of cases of pulmonary embolisms. In addition, the fever is rarely above 102 Fahrenheit.

A proper diagnosis of a pulmonary embolism begins with a clinical suspicion based on one or more of the above symptoms. If your doctor suspects that a person may be suffering from a pulmonary embolism, there are specific tests which can be done to confirm the diagnosis. These tests can include taking blood samples, and imaging the lungs with a CT scan.

Once again, a pulmonary embolism is a medical emergency which must be attended to immediately. Time is a critical component of successfully diagnosing and treating a pulmonary embolism. There is no time to waste in getting to a doctor who can make the proper diagnosis and initiate treatment. If you have further questions or concerns about the signs or symptoms of a pulmonary embolism, be sure to speak with your doctor.

More about this author: Erich Rosenberger M.D.

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