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Pulmonary embolism

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Respiratory System

Pulmonary embolism is a condition that occurs when an artery in your lung becomes blocked. In most cases, the blockage is caused by one or more blood clots that travel to your lungs from another part of your body.

Most blood clots originate in your legs, but they can also form in the veins of your arms, the right side of your heart or even at the tip of a catheter placed in a vein. In rare cases, other types of clots - such as globules of fat, air bubbles, tissue from a tumor or a clump of bacteria - also can lodge in your lungs' arteries.

Smaller clots prevent adequate blood flow to the lungs, sometimes causing damage to lung tissue (infarction). Large clots that completely block blood flow can be fatal.


Although as many as 2 million Americans develop blood clots in their veins every year, many cases of DVT and pulmonary embolism can be prevented with a few simple measures. Some of these measures are used in hospitals. Others are precautions you can take yourself.

Preventive steps in the hospital
Your doctor may suggest a number of approaches to prevent blood clots while you're recovering in the hospital following a heart attack, stroke or surgery:

  • Heparin or warfarin therapy. Anticoagulants such as heparin and warfarin are given to at-risk patients both before and after an operation as well as to people admitted to the hospital with a heart attack or stroke.

  • Graduated compression stockings. Compression stockings steadily squeeze your legs, helping your veins and leg muscles move blood more efficiently. They offer a safe, simple and inexpensive way to keep blood from stagnating after general surgery. Studies have shown that compression stockings used in combination with heparin are much more effective than heparin alone.

  • Pneumatic compression. This treatment uses thigh-high cuffs that automatically inflate every few minutes to massage and compress the veins in your legs. Studies show pneumatic compression can dramatically reduce the risk of blood clots, especially in people who have had hip replacement surgery.

  • Physical activity. After surgery, try to move around as soon as you have your doctor's OK. You may also be able to do leg exercises in bed.

Preventive steps while traveling
Sitting during a long flight or automobile ride increases your risk of developing blood clots in the veins of your legs. And the longer the flight, the greater the risk of DVT. To help prevent a blood clot from forming:

  • Take a walk. Move around the airplane cabin once an hour or so. If you're driving, stop every hour and walk around the car a couple of times and do a few deep knee bends.

  • Exercise while in your seat. Flex and rotate your ankles or press your feet against the seat in front of you. Or, try rising up and down on your toes. Don't sit with your legs crossed for long periods of time.

  • Wear support stockings. These help promote circulation and fluid movement. Compression stockings no longer look like something your grandmother would wear — they're available in a range of stylish colors and textures.

  • Take aspirin. If you're not allergic to aspirin, consider taking a low dose of aspirin just before a long trip to help prevent clot formation.

  • Drink plenty of fluids before and during the trip. Dehydration can contribute to the development of blood clots. Avoid drinking alcohol, though. It can add to the fluid loss.


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