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Pulmonary Embolism (cont.)

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What are the signs and symptoms of pulmonary embolism?

A pulmonary embolus may present with the sudden onset of chest pain and shortness of breath. The pain is classically sharp and worsens when taking a deep breath, often called pleuritic pain. There may be cough that produces bloody sputum.

The person may have stable vital signs (blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and oxygen saturation), but frequently has an elevated heart rate. If the blood clot is large enough, it can block blood from leaving the right side of the heart thus preventing blood from entering the lungs. There is then no blood entering the left side of the heart to pump to the rest of the body. This can result in circulatory collapse (shock) and death.

Depending on the amount of blood clot (clot burden or clot load), oxygen saturation can be variably affected as can the blood pressure and heart rate. Classic signs are such that the heart rate and respiratory rate are elevated as the body tries to compensate for less oxygen transfer in the lung. Increases in breathing and heart rate circulate the blood around the body more quickly, so that whatever oxygen is available is distributed best as possible.

Oxygen saturation may be decreased (red blood cells that do not have oxygen molecules attached to them).

The patient may be cyanotic (a blue tinged discoloration of the skin caused by red blood cells without oxygen), lightheaded, and weak.

Coughing up bloody sputum may also be a sign of pulmonary embolism.

In some cases, a pulmonary embolus will cause sudden death, where the person collapses, stops breathing, and their heart stops beating (cardiac arrest).

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/25/2015

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