Pulmonary embolism: symptoms

Shortness of breath and chest pain are some of the symptoms of pulmonary embolism, but also of some other diseases, so it can be difficult to identify them as PE

PE symptoms depend on the size of the embolus and the existence of previous heart and lung disease.

There are several symptoms that can make us suspect that the person experiencing them is suffering a PE, although most of them are not specific and can occur in the form of other diseases.

These are sudden symptoms and the most characteristic ones are the following:

· Dyspnea (shortness of breath sensation)

It is the most frequent symptom and manifests as difficulty to breathe in deeply or not being able to breathe fully and satisfactorily. In healthy people, it appears suddenly, although its intensity may increase gradually over a few days. In people with previous heart or lung disease, it can manifest as increased fatigue

· Chest pain

It is usually a sudden, intense and oppressive or stabbing pain. It can happen in the interior of the chest, behind the breastbone, as if it were a heart attack. It can also occur in one side of the chest, back and, less commonly, in the upper part of the abdomen. It is the kind of pain that increases when breathing in or coughing, and does not stop when changing positions or resting

· Syncope (loss of consciousness)

Sometimes the effort of the heart is not enough to overcome the obstruction of the pulmonary arteries and it may fail temporarily. Thus not enough blood and oxygen can reach the brain. At that time the person loses consciousness and may fall. Usually this symptom occurs when PE it is extensive, i.e., when it affects many pulmonary arteries or when it happens to people who are already sick, or suffer from heart or lung disease.


  • cough which can be dry and hoarse or have expectoration
  • hemoptysis. Consists of the expulsion of blood through the mouth when coughing. This blood comes from the lungs and indicates that a pulmonary infarction has occurred
  • tachypnea (increased respiratory frequency). Breathing is very fast, more than 20 breaths per minute
  • tachycardia (increased heart rate). The heart accelerates and a fast pulse or palpitations (strong beats) are noted. This is due to the heart beat increasing in order to be able to send sufficient blood to the lungs
  • other less frequent symptoms: paleness or bluish discoloration of the skin (cyanosis), sweating, fever, confusion, dizziness, suffocation

If these symptoms are accompanied by signs of DVT, such as pain, swelling, warmth, or redness of the leg, the suspicion of suffering PE increases.

Sometimes PE does not display any or only very mild symptoms and the patient does not realize that they might have an important health issue. In these cases the diagnosis goes undetected unless a test, such as a scan (CT) is performed.



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