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Pulmonary Embolism: What You Need To Know and Why Pregnancy Increases Your Risk

serena williams pulmonary embolism scareThanks to Serena Williams’ pulmonary embolism scare, the internet’s got pulmonary embolism on the brain. A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot that begins in or travels to the lungs. Embolisms happen to be one of my pet hypochondriac topics (there are so many, I know). And my embolism anxiety was never hotter than in the pregnancy and postpartum period, when embolism risks are elevated. One of my favorite artists, Paula Modersohn-Becker, died of a pulmonary embolism several weeks after the birth of her daughter. Her death was extra poignant as she painted mothers and pregnant women…and the suddenness and tragedy of it all made pulmonary embolism the perfect thing for my pregnant brain to obsess about.

You’ll be happy to know that even though your risk of getting a pulmonary embolism is higher in pregnancy and postpartum than in general, it’s still not very high at all.

Here’s what you need to know about pulmonary embolism, why it happens, and how you can help prevent it.

The hormonal changes make the blood of pregnant women coagulate, or clot, more easily. Blood clotting is important during childbirth, but in rare cases, a clot forms in a vein. This is called deep vein thrombosis, or DVT. Another reason women are more susceptible to DVT is that the uterus puts pressure on blood vessels and restricts blood flow. When blood flows more slowly, the risk of DVT is increased. DVT most commonly occurs in the legs. When a clot from the legs moves to the lungs, that’s a pulmonary embolism, which can kill you.

There are some things you can do to reduce your risk, especially when you’re sitting still for long periods of time (another DVT risk factor.) Check out these videos for some simple exercises that can help keep the blood flow in your legs healthy at the office and on the road.

symptoms of DVT:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • tenderness
  • area is warm to the touch

symptoms of pulmonary embolism:

  • difficulty breathing
  • anxiety
  • chest pain
  • coughing or breathing deeply, causing chest pain
  • feeling lightheaded
  • loss of consciousness

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms you should seek immediate medical care. Pulmonary embolism life threatening to you and your fetus.

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