Blood clots — jellylike masses of protein, blood cells and platelets — can be lifesaving when they stop bleeding caused by an injury, notes Consumer Reports on Health. But they can be deadly if they form where they aren’t needed.
A clot in a vein close to the skin’s surface causes a burning or itching sensation yet typically doesn’t lead to serious problems. But a clot that develops in a vein deep in the lower abdomen and legs can interfere with blood flow, often causing swelling and inflammation. Called deep vein thrombosis (DVT), it can also break up and form emboli (clots that travel through the bloodstream) that can lodge in the lungs. Those pulmonary emboli can lead to severe organ damage and death.
Up to 100,000 people in the U.S. die each year from a pulmonary embolism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the good news is that most blood clots are preventable and can usually be treated if discovered early.
Every year, as many as 600,000 people in the U.S. experience DVTs and clots in the lungs. DVT refers to clots that occur in the lower leg, thigh or pelvis. When clots occur in the arms or other areas, they’re usually referred to simply as venous thrombi.
The biggest danger is that portions of DVTs can break off and travel through the bloodstream.
If the traveling clots, or emboli, lodge in the lungs, they can block blood flow and cause a pulmonary infarction (tissue death) — a serious condition that can severely compromise lung function.
Untreated pulmonary emboli lead to death in about 30 percent of cases, so it’s urgent to seek prompt medical care.
WHO’S AT RISK?
Not all risk factors are injury-related. A number of situations can increase your risk, including:
- Sitting for longer than 6 to 8 hours, such as during a trip in a car or plane.
- Having limited mobility due to a medical issue, surgery or paralysis.
- Having an injured vein from a bone fracture, severe muscle injury, trauma or major surgery (especially involving the abdomen, pelvis, hip or legs).
- Having a tube placed in a vein for medication or other treatment, such as a central venous catheter.
- Having heart failure or cancer in the abdomen.
- Having previously suffered a clot or having a family history of blood clots.
- Being pregnant, taking birth control pills or taking prescription hormones for menopause symptoms.
- Being older than 60, being overweight or obese, having high blood pressure or being a smoker.
- Having certain genetic or inherited blood-clotting disorders, such as Factor V Leiden.
About half of the people with deep vein thrombosis don’t have symptoms. So the best way to protect yourself is to reduce your risk by following a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, losing weight if needed and not smoking.
Avoiding immobility. Sitting or lying down for long periods of time allows blood to pool and can induce clotting. Walking or otherwise working the lower leg muscles helps propel blood upward toward the heart. If you’re stuck on a long trip and are unable to get up, Consumer Reports on Health suggests exercising your legs while in your seat.
The first step in preventing dangerous complications is to be alert for symptoms. See your doctor promptly if you have unexplained swelling, pain, tenderness or redness in an arm or leg, as they could be signs of a dangerous clot.
A clot in the lungs is more serious because it can quickly become deadly. Signs include difficulty breathing, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, chest pain or discomfort, coughing up blood and feeling faint. If you have any of those symptoms, Consumer Reports on Health recommends going to an emergency room or calling 911. Since most people who die from a clot in the lungs succumb within a few hours after symptoms surface, prompt treatment is essential.