Treating and Managing Pulmonary Embolism

Treating Pulmonary Embolism

Treatment is aimed at keeping the blood clot from getting bigger and preventing new clots from forming. Prompt treatment is essential to prevent serious complications or death.

Blood thinners or anticoagulants are the most common treatment for a blood clot in the lung. It is important to note that blood thinners won’t dissolve blood clots. In most cases, the hope is your body will eventually dissolve the clot on its own. If it doesn’t, more drastic measures may need to be taken.

  • Medications
    • While hospitalized an injection is used, but this will be transitioned into a pill regimen when the patient is sent home. Thanks to medical advancements, many patients are good candidates for taking blood thinner tablets which do not require routine monitoring.
    • Patients will normally have to take medications regularly for an indefinite amount of time, usually at least 3 months. However, it is important to work with your doctor to find the best possible treatment for your condition.
    • Clot dissolvers called thrombolytics are a medication reserved for life-threatening situations because they can cause sudden and severe bleeding.
    • Inferior Vena Cava FilterWhen blood thinning medications aren’t working well or can’t be used, your health care provider may recommend a vein filter. In this procedure, a catheter is used to position a filter in the body's main vein, the inferior vena cava, that leads from your legs to the right side of your heart. This filter can help keep clots from going to your lungs and may be able to be removed if no longer needed.
  • Surgery
    • Embolectomy, sometimes called thrombectomy, is a surgical procedure that may be necessary in rare instances. For a very large, life-threatening clot, your healthcare provider may suggest removing it via a thin, flexible tube (catheter) threaded through your blood vessels. In some instances, a traditional surgery where the chest is opened to access the clot may be required.

Managing Pulmonary Embolism

While a pulmonary embolism can be life-threatening, most patients survive and need to learn how to live with the risk of recurrence. Your healthcare provider may prescribe anticoagulants, or blood thinners, which may be needed for as little as three months but can be required for the remainder of a patient’s life. The length of treatment depends on the underlying cause.

Appropriate caution must be taken due to the bleeding risk when on anticoagulants. Your doctor may suggest staying away from certain foods (such as foods rich in vitamin K), alcohol, or some over-the-counter medicines (such as aspirin and sleeping pills). It is also important for people taking blood thinners to be careful to avoid injuries which could increase the risk of bleeding.

In around five percent of patients with a pulmonary embolism, the arteries can form scar-like tissue which blocks or narrows the arteries, leading to a form of pulmonary hypertension called chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension (CTEPH). If you continue to have breathing difficulty 6 months after a pulmonary embolism you should talk to your doctor and get tested for CTEPH.

Your physician may complete a "hypercoagulability" evaluation on you at some point after your diagnosis. This could include blood tests looking for a genetic or acquired cause of your DVT. If there is no identifiable risk factor, your physician may recommend additional tests to search for other health conditions.

Finding Support

Communicate regularly with your doctors about changes in your breathing and general health. The Lung Association recommends patients and caregivers join our Living with Lung Disease Support Community or attend Better Breathers Club meetings to connect with others facing this disease. You can also call the Lung Association's Lung Helpline at 1-800-LUNGUSA to talk to a trained respiratory professional who can help answer your questions and connect you with additional support.
Learn More

For More Information:

Some resources available to patients include:

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: January 20, 2023

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