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What is a pulmonary embolism and how to tell if you have one

Pulmonary embolisms — like the one affecting tennis star Serena Williams — are blood clots in the arteries of the lungs — and they often originate in the legs, traveling up to the lungs.

Experts say they're more common in those who've been confined to bed rest for some time, but can also occur when people travel long distances and sit in a cramped position. This kind of inactivity often leads to blood clots in the legs, or deep-vein thrombosis. Surgery, particularly knee and hip replacement surgery, can also lead to blood clots.

When the blood clots break free and travel to the lungs —blocking a lung artery — the danger grows. At least 100,000 cases of pulmonary embolism occur in the United States each year. And it's the third most-common cause of death in hospitalized patients, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. If left untreated, about one third of patients will die.

How do you know if you're experiencing a pulmonary embolism?

The most common symptoms include shortness of breath — even when you're not exerting yourself — along with chest pain and coughing up blood. If you experience any of these symtoms, see a doctor immediately.

In some cases, the only signs and symptoms are related to deep vein thrombosis, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Signs include swelling of the leg or along the vein in the leg, pain or tenderness in the leg, a feeling of increased warmth in the area of the leg that's swollen or tender, and red or discolored skin on the affected leg.

Other symptoms to watch for include:
•Excessive sweating

•Clammy or bluish skin

•Light-headedness

•Fast or irregular heartbeat

•Weak pulse

The risk of developing a pulmonary embolism increases as you age. For every 10 years after age 60, the risk of a pulmonary embolism doubles.

Source: The Baltimore Sun Health News , By Linda Shrieves, Orlando Sentinel

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