A pulmonary embolism (PE) blocks the pulmonary artery from supplying blood to the lungs. A person’s life expectancy with a PE depends on the type and severity of the embolism. It also depends on how quickly the person receives a diagnosis and treatment.

Approximately 1–2 in every 1,000 people are affected by a PE each year in the United States (U.S.). This figure makes the condition the third-highest cause of cardiovascular mortality in the U.S.

Life expectancy with a PE depends on the type of embolism, a person’s age, and overall health. However, most people can fully recover from a PE if doctors can diagnose and treat them early on.

Read on about the symptoms and risk factors of PEs, the life expectancy, mortality rates, and outlook for a person diagnosed with PE.

PE is a potentially life threatening blockage in the pulmonary artery. It causes a blood clot to travel through the bloodstream and reach the lungs.

Common symptoms of PE may include:

  • pain associated with deep breathing
  • shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • increased heart rate (tachycardia)
  • coughing
  • rapid breathing

If a person has trouble breathing or has other severe symptoms, they should seek emergency medical assistance immediately.

Risk factors

Blood clots typically form in deep veins in the lower leg, thigh, or pelvis. This is a condition known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Most cases of PE originate from DVT. DVT and PE share the same risk factors.

The risk factors for PE can either be genetic or acquired, which may relate to nonsurgical or surgical factors.

Approximately 5–8% of the U.S. population has one of several genetic risk factors. These include:

The most common acquired mutations (behavioral or external factors) may include:

People between the ages of 70–79 years are also more likely to experience PE than younger individuals, according to research from 2011.

A person with associated cardiovascular comorbidities such as heart disease may also experience a higher mortality rate due to PE.

Read on for other risk factors associated with PE.

Prompt treatment is necessary to help prevent serious complications. Treatment for PE aims to help prevent clots from growing and the formation of new clots.

Blood thinners, or anticoagulants, are the most common treatment for PE. Doctors administer these using an intravenous injection, and a person can transition into taking them as an oral tablet when discharged from the hospital. The length of treatment depends on the underlying cause.

Most people make a full recovery after a PE, but some may experience long-term symptoms, such as shortness of breath. The recovery period may vary depending on the severity of the PE and the person’s overall health.

PEs can be one of the following types (with associated mortality rates from 2013 research included).

  • acute small — less than 1%
  • acute massive — over 20%, irrespective of treatments
  • acute submassive — ranges from 5–25%
  • subacute massive PE — depends upon incidence of malignancies
  • pulmonary infarction — not commonly associated with mortality, and linked to conditions such as alveolar hemorrhages and pleuritis

The most severe form of PE is acute massive. Approximately one-quarter of people with acute massive PE may die suddenly within the first few hours of symptoms appearing.

Some people can develop the following complications:

  • post-thrombotic syndrome may cause persistent swelling, pain, and discoloration of the skin in the affected area
  • chronic lung damage
  • further clotting
  • psychological issues such as anxiety or depression

One-third of people who recover from PE experience post-PE syndrome, which can last 3 months or more. This syndrome may cause persistent shortness of breath and impaired quality of life.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately one-third of people with PE will have a recurrence within 10 years.

The following tips may help improve a person’s condition after PE.

  • Having regular follow-ups: Doctors should monitor a person’s condition and assess whether they need to continue treatment.
  • Looking for warning signs: People should contact a doctor if they are experiencing symptoms such as pain, swelling, easy bruising, and unexpected bleeding.
  • Having routine blood tests: These tests will monitor the dose of the medications, so doctors can make any adjustments if required. Ultrasounds may also help monitor the size of the blood clot.

There is a greater awareness of certain causes of PE. For example, DVT may develop on journeys lasting longer than 6 hours. Doctors sometimes recommend people wear compression socks to help prevent PE occurrences.

After recovery, doctors may recommend people make certain lifestyle changes. These may include following a balanced diet, being physically active, taking steps to manage stress, and quitting smoking.

Read on for more about recovery from PE.

The outlook associated with PE depends on the type and severity of the embolism.

People with initial symptoms must immediately seek medical care to help prevent further complications. After recovery, a person’s doctor may suggest lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking and having routine checkups to reduce any further risks of complications from a PE.

Treatments are available to help people recover from PE, including anticoagulants. This treatment helps prevent the extension of clots as well as new clot formation.

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