What is a Pulmonary Embolus (PE)?

A pulmonary embolus is a blood clot that travels through the blood stream and lodges in the lungs. The most common origin of the blood clot is in the legs, a deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Pulmonary embolus is a serious medical condition. Its effect can range from asymptomatic, to mild shortness of breath or chest pain to death.

What are the symptoms of a Pulmonary Embolus (PE)?

The symptoms of a pulmonary embolus are:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Fainting (syncope)
  • Dizziness
  • Cough, with or without blood
  • Pain with a deep breath
  • Sudden death

A small pulmonary embolus can be asymptomatic.


How is a Pulmonary Embolus (PE) is diagnosed?

The most common and most accurate test to detect a pulmonary embolus is a CT of the chest with IV contrast, also called a CT angiogram. It is a fairly simple test to undergo. It is done as an outpatient, but it does require the technician to start an IV.

In some cases, a nuclear medicine perfusion lung scan may be done instead, or blood tests for non-specific markers of thrombus formation or inflammation may be done, but the gold standard is a CT angiogram.

What is the treatment for Pulmonary Embolus (PE)?

The treatment for pulmonary embolus is anticoagulation (blood thinner medication). The treatment is essentially the same as for DVT. For the majority of patients with a PE, the diagnosis and treatment is all outpatient. Hospitalization is usually not necessary. As with the treatment of DVT, most patients are treated for 3 to 12 months with anticoagulation, but is some cases of recurrent PE, longer times may be recommended. In cases where anticoagulation is contraindicated, an IVC (inferior vena cava) filter may be placed to help prevent additional pulmonary emboli from occurring. Visit the “What is the treatment for DVT?” section of the DVT webpage for more information.