How Do You Know If A Blood Clot Is Traveling To Your Lungs?

Nearly one million Americans are affected by dangerous blood clots yearly, the vast majority originate in the deep veins of the leg. These clots become life-threatening pulmonary emboli when pieces break off, travel through the heart, and lodge in the lungs—obstructing critical blood flow. While just one-third of patients exhibit warning signs beforehand, rapid recognition and treatment prove critical, as one in four untreated cases fatally end within 30 days of the initial event. Understanding subtle clues that blood clots are heading toward the lungs empowers swift, potentially lifesaving action.

Clot Warning Signs Missed or Misinterpreted

Up to 60% of pulmonary embolisms stem from asymptomatic lower extremity blood clots, or silent deep vein thrombosis (DVT), making them incredibly difficult to detect in time. However, even among symptomatic DVT sufferers, danger signals frequently get discounted or overlooked completely. The American College of Chest Physicians estimates pulmonary embolisms take the lives of at least 100,000 Americans annually due to delays in diagnosis and care stemming largely from failure to recognize red flags pointing to clots traveling upwards.

Hallmark Pulmonary Embolism Symptoms

Most characteristic signs and symptoms signaling a traveling blood clot result from vascular obstruction and oxygen deprivation rather than lower extremity DVT alone. Classic pulmonary embolism red flags include:

  • Sudden shortness of breath without inciting factors like respiratory illness or exercise
  • Rapid breathing exceeding 20 breaths per minute at rest
  • Chest pain is sharp in quality, typically worse when inhaling
  • Coughing up blood or bloody mucus

While overt indications strongly suggest pulmonary involvement, clinicians maintain a keen eye for subtle symptom variations also linked to wayward clots reaching the lungs.


Coughing affects over 70% of pulmonary embolism cases—second only to dyspnea or difficulty breathing. While typically nonproductive at first, roughly 13% later cough up frank blood or blood-tinged sputum. Hemoptysis results from infarcted lung tissue eroding into bronchial arteries due to disrupted blood supply. Even minor hemoptysis accompanied by unexplained shortness of breath warrants immediate medical investigation.


Blood clots bombarding the lungs trigger the widespread release of catecholamines—stress hormones increasing heart rate. Tachycardia, indicated by a pulse exceeding 100 beats per minute, occurs in a third of patients at pulmonary embolism presentation. Unexplained tachycardia may signal oxygen deprivation and warrants prompt evaluation, especially accompanying pulmonary symptoms.

Pleuritic Chest Pain

Local inflammation from lung tissue injury or microinfarction generates highly characteristic pleuritic chest pain—sharp and stabbing worsened by breathing. Classically described as similar to “being stabbed,” pulmonary embolism distinguishes itself as the most common cause of pleuritic pain arising in otherwise healthy individuals. While pleurisy raises red flags, nearly one-third never develop telltale chest pain.

Anxiety/Sense of Impending Doom

The abrupt hemodynamic changes and catecholamine surge triggered by pulmonary emboli may also manifest mentally in patients consciously noting the abrupt physiological shift. A sense of impending doom or feeling immediate medical intervention necessary to avert death represents a well-documented atypical symptom signaling possible massive clots impacting over half of the lung’s arteries.

Consider Pulmonary Embolism in Higher Risk Groups

While the spectrum of manifestations runs broad, clinical decision tools identify populations where suspicion for pulmonary embolism runs highest, including:

  • Age over 65 years old
  • Previous DVT or family history of clots
  • Recent surgery, hospitalization, or immobilization
  • Active cancer or chemotherapy
  • Dehydration or long-distance travel
  • Pregnancy and postpartum state
  • Obesity, cirrhosis or heart failure

By recognizing these common risk factors, pulmonary embolism joins the ranks of potential diagnoses more readily in vulnerable subsets prone to venous thromboembolism. Maintaining an index of suspicion facilitates life-saving detection and intervention.

Rapid Diagnosis Critical to Survival

While pulmonary emboli produce an array of common symptoms, clinical presentation varies widely from nonexistent to rapidly fatal. However, discussing risk factors and listening closely for verbal symptom cues aids in pattern recognition of an otherwise elusive diagnosis. Considering pulmonary embolism early and utilizing rapid diagnostic protocols like CT angiogram and chest CT proves critical, as timely treatment with clot-busting therapy dramatically reduces mortality risk. By tuning into subtle clues, clinical teams expedite recognition, working actively against the clock to restore oxygenation and reverse damage before it becomes irreversible. As outcomes correlate closely with speediness of action, noticing and voicing warning signs promptly after symptom onset gives patients with pulmonary embolism the best chances of survival.

Key Takeaways

  1. Pulmonary embolism warrants consideration whenever new respiratory symptoms manifest without known cause.
  2. Sudden onset chest pain with breathing worsened by deep inhales signals possible clot migration.
  3. If coughing starts producing blood-streaked mucus, call emergency services immediately.
  4. Tachycardia over 100 BPM plus dyspnea indicates a potential compromise of lung circulation.
  5. An inexplicable sense of doom also links strongly with massive clots burdening pulmonary vasculature.
  6. Discuss all cardiovascular and pulmonary symptoms with your provider to determine the next steps.


What happens if a blood clot gets to your lungs?

If a blood clot gets lodged in the arteries of the lungs, it blocks oxygenated blood from reaching nearby lung tissues in a condition called pulmonary embolism. Deprived of oxygen, lung tissue starts dying quickly, causing chest pain and difficulty breathing.

Can a small blood clot in the lung be fatal?

Yes, even small blood clots that block less than 50% of blood flow cause pulmonary embolism. While smaller clots cause less severe symptoms initially, without prompt treatment, they may enlarge rapidly by aggregating platelets or merging with others until a massive, fatal occlusion shuts the blood supply down altogether.

Do blood clots in the lungs go away?

Pulmonary emboli do not disappear on their own. Various fibrinolytic enzymes help break down clots over time, but anticoagulant medication proves necessary to prevent stranding fibrin threads from knitting clots larger. Supportive therapies also ease the strain on the lungs and heart until the blockages are fully clear.

What dissolves blood clots in the lungs fastest?

Injectable fibrinolytic drugs like tPA given through an IV line work fastest to break up lung blood clots, but bleeding risks limit their use. Anticoagulant medications combined with surgical catheter-directed thrombolysis provide the next safest option for rapid clot dissolution when major pulmonary emboli occur.


Pulmonary embolism continues stealing far too many lives, not from therapy ineffectiveness, but failure to recognize subtle clues that blood clots actively travel through circulation. However, by understanding common symptoms, and high-risk groups, and implementing rapid diagnostic protocols, pulmonary embolism transforms into a treatable condition. Prompt recognition and vocalization of warning signs is challenging as presentation varies widely, but breaking the silence wins half the battle against this formidable foe. Employees, clinicians, and patients alike all shoulder responsibility broadcasting suspicion early. Teamwork addressing pulmonary embolism swiftly and aggressively remains paramount to survivability.


My name is Selina, a medical specialist blogger helping people access treatment for 5+ years. Although blogging awhile, only recently deeply engaged. This past year my most productive, providing hospital reviews and info on symptoms, diagnoses and diseases. Also offer guidelines to help readers navigate healthcare. Goal to continue increased content pace to assist many. Aim to facilitate treatment and empower advocacy through writing.

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