Air Embolism

Written by Rose Kivi | Published on August 20, 2012
Medically Reviewed by Peter Rudd, MD

What Is an Air Embolism?

An air embolism—also called a gas embolism­—is when an air bubble or air bubbles enter a vein or artery and block it. When the embolism enters a vein, it is called a venous air embolism. When the air enters an artery, it is called an arterial air embolism.

These air bubbles can travel to your brain, heart, or lungs and cause a heart attack, stroke, or respiratory failure.

Air embolisms are very rare.

Causes of an Air Embolism

An air embolism can occur when your veins or arteries are exposed, and pressure allows air to travel into them. This can happen in several ways, such as:

Injections and Surgical Procedures

A syringe or IV can accidentally inject air into your veins. Air can also enter your veins or arteries through a catheter that is inserted into them.

Air can enter your veins and arteries during surgical procedures. This is most common during brain surgeries. According to an article in the Journal of Minimal Access Surgery, up to 80 percent of brain surgeries result in an air embolism (NCBI). However, medical professionals usually detect the embolism during the surgery and correct it before it becomes a serious problem.

Doctors and nurses are trained to avoid allowing air to enter the veins and arteries during medical and surgical procedures. They are also trained to recognize an air embolism and treat it if one does occur.

Lung Trauma

An air embolism can sometimes occur if there is trauma to your lung. For example, if your lung is compromised after an accident, you might be put on a breathing ventilator. This ventilator could force air into a damaged vein or artery.

Scuba Diving

You can get an air embolism while scuba diving. This is possible if you hold your breath for too long when under water or if you surface from the water too quickly.

These actions can cause the air sacs in your lungs, called alveoli, to rupture. When the alveoli rupture, air may move to your arteries, resulting in an air embolism.

Explosion and Blast Injuries

An injury that occurs because of a bomb or blast explosion can cause your veins or arteries to open. These injuries typically only occur in combat situations. The force of the explosion can push air into injured veins or arteries.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common fatal injury for people in combat who survive blast injuries is “blast lung” (CDC). Blast lung is when an explosion or blast damages your lung and air is forced into a vein or artery in the lung.

Blowing into the Vagina

In rare instances, blowing air into the vagina during oral sex can cause an air embolism. In this case, the air embolism can occur if there is a tear or injury in the vagina or uterus. The risk is higher in pregnant women, who may have a tear in their placentae.

What Are the Symptoms of an Air Embolism?

A minor air embolism may cause very mild symptoms, or none at all. Symptoms of a severe air embolism might include:

  • difficulty breathing or respiratory failure
  • chest pain or heart failure
  • stroke
  • mental changes, such as confusion
  • low blood pressure
  • blue skin hue

How Is an Air Embolism Diagnosed?

Doctors might suspect that you have an air embolism if you are experiencing symptoms, and something happened to you that could cause such a condition, like a surgery or lung injury.

Doctors use equipment that monitor airway sounds, heart sounds, breathing rate, and blood pressure to detect air embolisms during surgeries.

If a doctor suspects that you have an air embolism, he or she may perform an ultrasound or CT scan to try to determine where it is located in your body.

How Is an Air Embolism Treated?

Treatment for air embolism has three goals—to stop the source of the air embolism, to prevent it from damaging your body, and to resuscitate you if necessary.

In some cases, your doctor will know how the air is entering your body. In these situations, he or she will correct the problem to prevent future embolisms.

Your doctor may also position you to sit up, to help stop the embolism from traveling to your brain, heart, and lungs. You may also be given medications, such as adrenaline, to keep your heart pumping.

If possible, your doctor will remove the air embolism through surgery. Another treatment option is hyperbaric oxygen therapy. This is a painless treatment during which you are placed in a steel high-pressurized room that delivers 100 percent oxygen. This therapy can cause an air embolism to shrink, so it can be absorbed into your bloodstream without causing any damage.

Are Air Embolisms Fatal?

Sometimes an air embolism or embolisms are small, and do not block the veins or arteries. Small embolisms generally dissipate into the bloodstream and do not cause serious problems. Large air embolisms can cause strokes or heart attacks and could be fatal. Prompt medical treatment for an embolism is essential to your survival.

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