Critical Concepts

Exploring the Causes and Symptoms of Pulmonary Embolism

  • Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a medical emergency that can change someone’s life forever. 
  • PE are one of the most common medical emergencies and can be caused by surgery, physical injury, or a hemorrhage. 
  • PE occur when a blood clot enters one of the arteries in the lungs.  

Sadia Arshad


December 06, 2022
Simmons University

The lungs are an extremely important set of organs that deliver oxygen throughout the body and remove wasteful gases several times a day. They contribute much to the maintenance of the body’s homeostasis, blood flow, and oxygenation. But what happens when the lungs have an emergency and do not work as well is they used to, like when a pulmonary embolism occurs.  

What Is Pulmonary Embolism (PE)?

Pulmonary embolism (PE) occurs when there is a blood clot that travels from somewhere else in the body (like the legs) to the lungs. This movable clot, also known as an embolus, enters one of the arteries in the lungs suddenly blocking blood flow.  

This blockage of blood flow can cause severe problems for someone, as blood is constantly moving in the lungs and elsewhere in the body.  

Because they affect the lungs and blood flow, it can cause life-threatening problems if not promptly treated.  

Fortunately, there are ways to manage them, but early detection and intervention is necessary.

What Causes Pulmonary Embolism?

Common causes for PE include: 

  • Physical injury 
  • Hemorrhage 
  • Surgery  
  • Any health condition that increases someone’s likelihood of clotting 

Pulmonary Embolism symptoms

What Are Some Risk Factors for Pulmonary Embolism?

  • History of clotting disorders 
  • Surgery 
  • History of clots 
  • Cancer
  • Obesity 
  • Smoking 
  • Hospitalization 
  • Older age 
  • Certain medications 
  • Prolonged immobility 
  • COVID-19 
  • Surgery 
  • Pregnancy 

What Are Signs and Symptoms of Pulmonary Embolism?

 Sometimes, people with a PE have no signs or symptoms.  

Other times, common signs and symptoms include: 

  • Shortness of breath 
  • Cough, especially coughing up blood 
  • Chest pain or pressure 
  • Diaphoresis (sweating) 
  • Leg pain 
  • Dizziness 
  • Confusion 
  • Loss of consciousness 
  • Irregular heartbeat 

Pulmonary Embolism treatments


How Is Pulmonary Embolism Diagnosed and Managed?

PE is a serious medical emergency that also has clinical presentation similar to other emergencies. Because of this, clinical presentations, tests, assessments, and imaging are essential to ensure prompt diagnosis and treatment.  

In addition to a complete exam and blood work, imaging that can be done includes a chest x-ray, ventilation/perfusion (V/Q) scan, pulmonary angiogram, CT scan, and MRI.  

 Nursing interventions for patients with pulmonary embolism often include: 

  • Managing pain levels 
  • Administering anticoagulants and other medications 
  • Preventing infection 
  • Assessing oxygen levels 
  • Monitoring intake and output 

 Pulmonary embolism is a common medical emergency. If you work in emergency health settings or critical care, at some point, you will encounter someone with a pulmonary embolism.  

Having a thorough understanding of pulmonary health, blood work, and imaging are essential for early detection, treatment, and management of this condition.  

 Nurses are the most trusted profession for a reason. Patients often turn to nurses for medical information since there can be so many uncertainties about health care, medication, and more. 

Some ways you can raise awareness about pulmonary embolism with patients include: 

  • Providing educational materials on lung health 
  • Addressing any concerns about breathing and bodily changes 
  • Reviewing patients’ health records to note for any sudden changes in labs or vital signs 
  • Educating patients on red flags, such as coughing up blood or increased chest pain 

 Some ways you can learn more about pulmonary embolism include:  

  • Discussing with nursing management on any pulmonary embolism or lung health education efforts at your workplace 
  • Enrolling in continuing education focusing on medical emergencies or pulmonary health or both 

pulmonary embolism causes

The Bottom Line

Instances of pulmonary embolism can be hard to detect, especially in patients who do not present with any symptoms, who do not have standing orders for routine bloodwork, or who do not have any pre-existing health conditions. 

 In patients who have existing health conditions, pulmonary embolism can be overlooked and not early detected. As nurses, it is important to take a holistic view of each patient we care for.  


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