Five warning signs of pulmonary embolism

17 April 2023 dot 4-minute read
Healthy Body Feature Live Well Pulmonary embolism Illnesses and diseases
Factors like obesity, smoking, and long periods of immobility can increase the risk of pulmonary embolism. (Credit: Shutterstock)
A pulmonary embolism is a critical, often underdiagnosed, medical condition caused by a blocked artery in the lung. Although it can be fatal, it is treatable if discovered early. Pulmonary embolism can happen to anyone, so it's essential to understand its symptoms and how it happens.
Developing a blood clot in the vein is called venous thromboembolism (VTE). Pulmonary embolism, one of two types of VTE, occurs when a blood clot breaks free from a large or deep vein and travels to the pulmonary artery, blocking blood flow to the lungs.
Before breaking loose, the blood clot usually forms in the deep vein of the lower leg, thigh, pelvis or arm. This type of blood clot is known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT), the second type of VTE.

Signs of pulmonary embolism

DVT is the most common cause of pulmonary embolism. However, some people can experience pulmonary embolism without experiencing any DVT symptoms. If symptoms do present, breathing issues and dizziness are the most common signs.
Seek emergency care if you experience any of the following:
  1. Shortness of breath
  2. Chest pain or worsening discomfort that worsens when breathing deeply
  3. Feeling lightheaded, dizzy, or faint
  4. A cough (with or without blood)
  5. Blueish lips or nails (cyanosis)
  6. Excessive sweating
  7. Pain in your back
  8. Leg pain or swelling
  9. Rapid or irregular heartbeat

Risk factors of a blood clot in the vein

While anyone can be at risk of developing a blood clot, pregnancy increases the risk fivefold. (Credit: Shutterstock)
You’re susceptible to developing VTE if you have a family history of blood clots. The factors below can also increase your risk.
  • Older age, especially after 40
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Use of high-oestrogen contraceptives
  • Pregnancy and childbirth complications
  • Immobility or inactivity
  • Trauma and surgery
  • Inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis
  • Cancer
Based on a review in the Journal of Thrombosis and Haemostasis, DVT and pulmonary embolism may be under-reported and underdiagnosed in Asia. There may also be fewer symptomatic VTE Asian patients, a possible reason for the lower rates of cases, according to another review in Thrombosis Journal.

Healthy habits to prevent VT

Staying active is essential for your legs, where blood clots usually form. (Credit: Shutterstock)
Prevent blood clots from forming in the veins and improve blood flow with these steps.
  1. Practise stretching. A study in the Journal of Physiology shows performing simple, passive leg stretches helps your arteries dilate and decrease their stiffness.
  2. Increase activity level  after long periods of bed rest due to surgery, illness or injury.
  3. Get up and walk around frequently after sitting down for hours at work or home and during long flights.
  4. Maintain a healthy weight to help prevent putting pressure on your veins. A study published in PLOS One Journal linked weight gain to a higher risk for VTE
  5. Avoid smoking. This can narrow the passageway of blood vessels and damage their lining.
  6. Drink plenty of water to promote the circulation of blood.
  7. Raise your legs on a few pillows or against a wall at least twice daily.
  8. Use compression socks or stockings. Two systematic reviews from the Cochrane Database found that using compression stockings during long flights and prolonged hospital stays significantly reduced the risk of DVT.
If you’re at high risk of developing blood clots, prevent or manage symptoms with a medical protection plan. It can support your financial wellbeing if you encounter an unexpected hospitalisation. Although it can be life-threatening, pulmonary embolism is treatable.
Bookmark this article and share it with friends and family to increase their awareness of the risks of VTE.
American Lung Association. 2020.  Learn About Pulmonary Embolism. [online] [Accessed on 12 December 2022]
American Lung Association. 2020.  Pulmonary Embolism Symptoms and Diagnosis [online] [Accessed on 12 December 2022]
Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. 2022. What is Venous Thromboembolism? [online] [Accessed on 12 December 2022]
Thrombosis and Haemostasis. 2017.  Incidence of Venous Thromboembolism in Asian Populations: A Systematic Review. [online] [Accessed on 12 December 2022]
Thrombosis Journal. 2018.  The diagnosis and treatment of venous thromboembolism in Asian patients. [online] [Accessed on 12 December 2022]
Medline Plus. Last updated 2020.  Pulmonary Embolism. [online] [Accessed on 12 December 2022]
StatPearls. Last Update 2022.  Acute Pulmonary Embolism. [online] [Accessed on 12 December 2022]
American Thoracic Society.  Pulmonary Embolism. [online] [Accessed on 12 December 2022]
PLoS One. 2016. Weight Change and Risk of Venous Thromboembolism: The Tromsø Study. [online] [Accessed on 12 December 2022]
Thrombosis Research. 2007. Physical activity in patients with deep venous thrombosis: a systematic review. [online] [Accessed on 12 December 2022]
Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016.  Compression stockings for preventing deep vein thrombosis in airline passengers. [online] [Accessed on 14 December 2022]
Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018.  Graduated compression stockings for prevention of deep vein thrombosis. [online] [Accessed on 14 December 2022]

This is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a financial adviser, or medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.

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