A pulmonary embolism occurs when one of the arteries, or several of them, in the lungs are blocked. This is typically caused by a blood clot that travels from another part of the body such as the legs, and eventually reaches the lungs. This condition can happen to nearly anyone at anytime, even those who are otherwise completely healthy. Pulmonary embolisms can be fatal when prompt treatment is not given. Treatment typically includes anti-clotting drugs to dissolve the clot.
Symptoms of pulmonary embolism generally include a sudden shortness of breath that cannot be explained, cough with blood and/or moderate to severe chest pain. Symptoms may be different for different people, so anyone having just one of these signs is urged to contact their physician immediately. The symptoms may also vary depending on the size of the clot, general health and how much of the lung is actually involved. Those with underlying heart or lung disease may notice the symptoms much sooner than someone who is otherwise healthy. It is estimated that approximately one-third of those with pulmonary embolism that remain undiagnosed and go untreated do not survive. If the condition is diagnosed early and treated quickly, those numbers drop significantly.
Other symptoms that have been reported include swelling of the legs, excessive sweating, wheezing, clammy skin or skin that has a blue tint, dizziness, fainting, rapid or irregular heartbeat and a weak pulse. Pulmonary embolisms are currently considered the third most common cause of death. This condition currently causes more deaths annually than breast cancer and AIDS combined and experts have reported that more than 100,000 deaths each year are the result of a pulmonary embolism.
Several factors put you at a higher risk for developing pulmonary embolisms. Age is the number one factor. As people age, their valves often stop functioning properly. Combined with dehydration that is common in the elderly and other medical problems, this makes the elderly more susceptible to developing blood clots.
A family history of the condition is also a precursor. Those who have had parents or other close family members with a pulmonary embolism are much more likely to develop one themselves. Researchers are currently studying this fact. They believe that it may be linked to an inherited clotting disorder.
Other factors that put you at a higher risk for pulmonary embolism include past surgeries, smoking, obesity, certain medical conditions such as heart disease and certain cancers and using supplemental estrogen. Fabricated estrogen found in most birth control pills or hormone replacement therapies can strongly increase the risk for clotting disorders in the blood. This is particularly true for women who take these supplements and continue to smoke.
Many organizations are currently performing additional research into pulmonary embolisms in order to increase the survival rate of patients. Studies are ongoing in areas such as genetics as well as treatment and diagnosis. Scientists are looking for ways to ensure that pulmonary embolisms do not go undiagnosed and untreated, which will in turn increase the survival rate of this condition significantly.
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