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A pulmonary embolism is the name given to a blood clot that lodges in one of the blood vessel that supplies the lungs with blood. It is a very serious condition, one that can cause death within hours if not medically treated.
Blood clots can form in various veins throughout the body. Sometimes such a clot, known as an embolus, can detach itself and flow with the blood around the body. In the vast majority of cases, the clot comes from a vein in the legs and came about as a result of deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Occasionally, the embolus is not a blood clot at all, but an air bubble, globule of fat, or tissue detached from a tumour.
If the embolus becomes lodged in one of the pulmonary arteries that supply the lungs, it can seriously affect the flow of oxygen and blood through the body. The condition can onset rapidly, does not always exhibit any symptoms, and can be fatal in one in 10 cases.
In most cases, people who have a pulmonary embolism are already suffering from another complaint, usually a heart condition or deep vein thrombosis. Some people are more at risk than others, however, and they include:
Sometimes there are no symptoms at all. However, many people who experience a pulmonary embolism will feel some or all of the following symptoms:
In nearly every case of embolism, hospital treatment is essential because of the possibility of a greater embolus occurring subsequently. When one of these larger emboli become lodged in the lung, urgent life-saving medical attention will be required. The symptoms of a severe pulmonary embolism include:
It is very difficult to revive someone in this condition without medical attention. They need to be transferred to hospital immediately.
Unfortunately, a pulmonary embolism can be difficult to diagnose, as it may not display symptoms. When it does exhibit symptoms, they can be easily mistaken for other complaints, such as a cardiac arrest.
If a pulmonary embolism is diagnosed, the key issue is to stabilise the patients cardiovascular system until the embolus can be dissolved. This process can take up to a fortnight.
People with a diagnosed embolism receive anti-coagulant drugs to thin the blood and lessen the chance of another embolus developing. They may have to receive oxygen treatment also, as the lungs ability to function is impaired. Sometimes it is possible to dissolve the embolus; other times it is advisable to operate to remove it. Often, it is allowed to resolve itself under medical supervision.
People who have had an embolism in the past may find that they must take anti-coagulant for some time, possibly even the rest of their lives, to avoid another embolus developing.
If you feel any of the symptoms of a pulmonary embolism, especially if the symptoms develop very quickly, you must get to hospital immediately.