Are you having a pulmonary embolism?

Posted on 13 April 2016

Probably not. But that nagging cough that you have might be a cold, or it might be something far more serious. To make sure you know the difference, learn the symptoms and risk factors for pulmonary embolism.

A pulmonary embolism (PE) is caused by a blockage in your pulmonary artery, the blood vessel that carries blood from your heart to your lungs. That blockage is usually caused by a blood clot which travels up your body from one of the deep veins in your legs to your heart and lungs.

PE is treated in hospital with anticoagulant (blood-thinning) medication, which stops the blood clot from getting bigger while your body slowly reabsorbs it, while also reducing the risk of further clotting.

PE is potentially life-threatening, because it can prevent blood from reaching your lungs. The good news, though, is that PE is relatively rare – and it mostly occurs in older people, or people who have deep vein thrombosis, or DVT (a blood clot in one of the deep veins of the legs).

The bad news, however, is that the symptoms of PE can make it difficult to spot. Dr David Richard of Mediclinic Sandton is a paediatric pulmonologist, so he doesn’t see many PE patients… but he has had to treat a few extreme cases.

‘The symptoms are sometimes non-specific,’ he says. ‘There’s a long list of them: you may have chest pain, you may cough up blood, your exercise tolerance may decrease, you may have shortness of breath, or you may have a suggestion of a peripheral source, like a tender calf muscle or deep vein thrombosis.’ But, Dr Richard adds, ‘You don’t want to panic for every cough and cold!’

It’s better to keep an eye on the risk factors, which include DVT, as well as the usual nasties like smoking and obesity. Another risk factor is long periods of inactivity – and that’s where pregnant women and frequent fliers need to be careful. DVT tends to occur in people who are inactive for long periods of time: for example, long-haul aeroplane flights (where you’ve been sitting still for hours) or after while recovering from surgery (where immobilisation can increase your risk of blood clots).

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In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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