Pulmonary embolism

How is a pulmonary embolism treated?

If you need treatment for a pulmonary embolism, you’ll almost always receive this in hospital. But if your clot is small, you may be discharged quickly.

Sometimes, if your health care professional assesses your clot is very low risk, you may be diagnosed and treated as an outpatient.

Taking anticoagulant drugs

The main treatment is called an anticoagulant. This is a drug that causes chemical changes in your blood to stop it clotting easily. This drug will stop the clot getting larger while your body slowly absorbs it. It also reduces the risk of further clots developing.

There are many types of anticoagulants, and your health care professional will give you the best one for you. Your first treatment is likely to be injected, then later you’re likely to take tablets.

You will usually be recommended to take these drugs for at least 3 months to prevent blood clots. Some people need to take them for longer or indefinitely. For example, people who have significant, life-threatening features with pulmonary embolism, recurrent clots or an unprovoked clot may be advised to stay on the drug for the rest of their lives.

Like any drugs, anticoagulants may have side effects, and effects will vary from person to person. One of the most important problems is bleeding more easily and excessively. Because of this, if you’re prescribed warfarin, you may need regular blood tests to make sure you’re on the best dose. There are newer anticoagulant tablets which don’t need regular blood tests. Your health care professional will make sure you take the best drug for you and your condition.

Anticoagulants interact with many other drugs, including herbal remedies. They can be affected by alcohol and certain foods. Your doctor, nurse and pharmacist can help you to manage your medication.

In more severe cases of pulmonary embolism, other treatments may be needed to remove or break up a clot. This might be done with drugs called thrombolytics, or less commonly, surgery.

Recovering from a pulmonary embolism

Often, your GP will follow up after your embolism. But it’s becoming more common to go back to a thrombosis service based in a hospital. This is to make sure you understand all the information and there’re no problems with the drug you’re taking.

Most people are treated for pulmonary embolism for at least 3 months, and some may be treated for the rest of their lives.

How long will I feel breathless?

It’s common to feel breathless for a few weeks or months after a pulmonary embolism. But if these symptoms last for more than 8 weeks, talk to a health care professional.

If you live with a condition that made you breathless before the clot, it’s unlikely your breathlessness will be improved.

There are lots of conditions that can make you feel short of breath after pulmonary embolism. But your health care professional will want to check that it is not caused by pulmonary hypertension.

What happens when my treatment ends?

When you come to the end of treatment, your doctor may suggest further investigations to see if there was a reason for the clot – if there was one. Very rarely there might be a family history of clots. If there is, ask to be referred to a specialist. Routine testing for genetic risk is not recommended.

Next: How to prevent pulmonary embolism >

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Last medically reviewed: March 2018. Due for review: March 2021

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.