Pulmonary Embolism Symptoms and Diagnosis

What are the Symptoms of Pulmonary Embolism?

The signs and symptoms of pulmonary embolism vary greatly depending on the size of the clot, how much of the lung is involved and whether you have an underlying medical condition.

The most common symptoms are:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain that may become worse when breathing in
  • Cough, which may contain blood
  • Leg pain or swelling
  • Pain in your back
  • Excessive sweating
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness or passing out
  • Blueish lips or nails

How to Diagnose Pulmonary Embolism

Because pulmonary embolism can be difficult to diagnose, it is important to consult your doctor immediately if you are experiencing symptoms. Your physician will probably do a physical exam and ask about your personal history, including any potential risk factors. They may also do blood tests and imaging studies to determine the most likely diagnosis to fit with your symptoms. During the physical exam, your doctor might inspect your legs for evidence of a deep vein clot—an area that's swollen, tender, red and warm. They will also listen to your heart and lungs and check your blood pressure.

Common tests that may be ordered are:

  • CTPA or a computed tomographic angiography is a special type of X-ray that is the most common test used to diagnose PE because it uses contrast to analyze blood vessels
  • D-Dimer blood tests to measure the amount of oxygen or CO2 in your blood
  • Chest X-ray of your heart and lungs
  • Pulmonary V/Q scan to show which parts of your lungs are getting airflow and blood flow
  • Ultrasound of the legs to measure blood flow speed
  • Spiral CT scan which can detect artery abnormalities
  • Pulmonary angiography to show the blood clots in the lungs
  • Electrocardiogram to record heart activity
  • MRI is usually reserved for pregnant women and individuals that may not be able to tolerate the contrast used in other imaging tests

Page last updated: April 28, 2020

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