A pulmonary embolism (PE) is when a blood clot becomes stuck in the blood vessels of your lung. These clots typically begin in the leg and then break free and travel to the lung.
The American Lung Association estimates that about 1 in 1,000 people in the United States experience a PE each year. A PE can be a serious or life threatening condition, which means receiving prompt medical treatment is vital.
Treatment of a PE focuses on making sure that the current clot doesn’t get any bigger while also preventing new clots from forming. Recovery from a PE can take several weeks or months.
Continue reading to learn more about:
- how long it can take to recover from a PE
- the treatments you may receive
- when you can go back to your normal activities
The exact amount of time that it takes to recover from a PE can vary from person to person. Many people can completely recover and return to their normal level of activity after a period of several weeks or months.
It’s possible that some of your symptoms will ease as you receive treatment and your body heals. However, it’s not uncommon to continue to have shortness of breath or chest pain for weeks, months, or even years after a PE.
Next, we’ll go over some of the important factors that can impact how long your recovery will take.
Severity of your PE
The severity of a PE can affect treatment options. For example, someone with a severe or life threatening PE may require more intensive treatment with thrombolytic medications or a medical procedure. These can potentially prolong your recovery time.
Your overall health
Your overall health is important in the treatment and recovery process of any health condition. This is also true with PE.
Certain underlying health conditions may put you at an increased risk for experiencing prolonged shortness of breath or difficulty with physical exertion after a PE. Some examples of these include:
- thrombophilia, a condition that causes blood clots
- inflammatory bowel disease
- taking thyroid hormone for hypothyroidism
- having previous procedures such as a splenectomy or placement of a pacemaker or cardiac shunt
Blood clot risk
A big part of the recovery for PE aims to prevent additional blood clots from forming. There are several risk factors that can increase your risk for blood clots, such as:
- previous history of blood clots
- older age
- certain health conditions, including:
- infections, such as COVID-19
- genetic conditions that increase your risk for blood clots, such as factor V Leiden thrombophilia
- taking hormone-based medications, such as birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy
- surgical procedures
- long periods of immobilization, such as being on bed rest or traveling long distances
Generally speaking, the more risk factors you have, the higher your risk is for developing a blood clot.
As you’re recovering from a PE, your doctor will assess your risk for future blood clots. Those at a higher risk level may need to take blood-thinning medications for a longer period.
Many people who have a PE spend some time in the hospital to receive treatment. The length of this stay can depend on the severity of the PE. One
In some cases, it may be possible to receive treatment at home. The American Society of Hematology published guidelines in 2020 suggesting that physicians offer home treatment for those with PE who are at a low risk for complications.
Next, let’s review some of the treatments and follow-up care that you may receive after a PE.
The primary treatment for a PE is the use of blood-thinning medications, also known as anticoagulants.
Blood-thinning medications work to stop existing clots from getting larger and also prevent new clots from forming. However, they don’t dissolve clots. Your body typically does this on its own over time.
In situations when a PE has become life threatening, clot-busting medications called thrombolytics may be given prior to blood-thinning medications. These strong medications work to dissolve blood clots.
At a minimum, you’ll typically have to take a blood-thinning medication for 3 months. Some people, including those at a higher risk for another serious blood clot, may need to continue taking it for a longer period of time.
Sometimes, a medical procedure may be needed as a part of PE treatment. These can include:
- Catheter-assisted thrombus removal. This procedure may be used for large or life threatening clots. A doctor uses a thin, flexible tube (catheter) to deliver medication to dissolve the clot or a tool to break up the clot.
- Vena cava filter. For people who cannot tolerate blood thinners, a filter may be placed in a large vein called the inferior vena cava. This filter can help trap blood clots that form in other parts of your body before they reach your lungs.
You’ll have regular follow-up appointments with your doctor during your recovery period. These can begin anywhere from
During these appointments, your doctor will evaluate how your recovery is progressing. They’ll also address any questions or concerns that you may have.
Blood tests are used to help your doctor gauge how well your medications are working and how well your body is tolerating them. Additional imaging isn’t typically necessary unless you’re having persistent symptoms like shortness of breath or fatigue.
Three months after your PE diagnosis, your doctor will consider whether you need to continue on with blood-thinning medications. If you’re at a low risk for future blood clots, you may not need to continue taking them.
To promote cardiovascular health and prevent another blood clot from forming, it’s important to implement various lifestyle adjustments during your recovery period and beyond. These can include things like:
After a PE, it’s normal to have questions and concerns about when you can safely return to your normal activities. The short answer is it depends on your overall condition as well as your doctor’s recommendation.
Let’s look at some general guidelines about returning to your normal activity levels.
After a PE, it’s important to try to go about your daily activities when possible. During this time, listen to what your body is telling you. If a certain activity leaves you feeling short of breath or in pain, stop doing it and rest until you feel better.
Returning to work
When you’re able to return to work can largely depend on the type of job that you have. In some cases, it may be possible to return to work within weeks. Your doctor will work with you to decide when it’s appropriate to start working again.
Physical activity is often encouraged after a PE, as it can improve both circulation and lung function. It may be a good idea to start out with low-intensity activities, such as walking or yoga. As you recover, you can slowly begin increasing the intensity of your activities.
During your follow-up appointments, ask your doctor for exercise recommendations. Based on the progression of your recovery, they can help give you an idea of what level of physical activity is appropriate.
It’s generally best to avoid strenuous exercise after a PE. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, your body needs time to heal and recover. Second, blood-thinning medications can increase your risk for serious bruising or bleeding if you’re injured.
As mentioned earlier, it’s important to listen to your body during this time. Try to be patient and don’t push yourself too hard, too soon.
Flying, especially long-haul flights, isn’t recommended during the first 4 weeks of your recovery. After this period, it’s typically fine to travel, but it may be a good idea to discuss your travel plans with your doctor ahead of time.
Whether you’re traveling by car or by plane, it’s important to make sure that you don’t sit for too long. Take some time every couple of hours to get up and walk around for a few minutes.
Here are some potentially serious complications that are important to keep an eye out for as you recover from a PE.
Increased bleeding is a side effect of blood-thinning medications. This can be serious, so seek medical attention right away if you notice any of the following while on blood thinners:
- bleeding that’s unexpected and is hard to stop
- severe bruising
- coughing or vomiting that brings up blood
- blood in your stool or black, tarry stool
- blood in your urine
- severe, persistent headache
- feelings of dizziness or weakness
A repeat DVT or PE
Because of this, it’s important to look out for the symptoms of these conditions and seek prompt medical care if they occur.
Some potential signs of DVT include the following symptoms:
- swollen, tender, or painful area of the body
- noticeably warmer feeling than other areas
- skin that’s red or discolored
Symptoms that mean you may be experiencing another PE include:
- shortness of breath
- chest pain, particularly when breathing deeply
- quick breathing
- increased heart rate
- feeling lightheaded or faint
- coughing that may bring up blood
In some people who have had a PE, scar tissue can form in nearby arteries, causing them to become narrower. This can lead to a condition called pulmonary hypertension.
The symptoms of pulmonary hypertension include:
- difficulty breathing, especially after physical activity
- feeling faint
- heart palpitations
- coughing that brings up blood
Pulmonary hypertension can lead to heart failure, so it’s important that it’s treated. The American Lung Association recommends making an appointment with your doctor to be tested for pulmonary hypertension if you still have trouble with breathing 6 months after your PE.
The outlook for those who’ve had a PE is generally good if it’s detected and treated quickly. If not, PE can become life threatening. In fact, with prompt care, mortality from PE drops from
The recovery period can vary by individual. While many people can recover completely over a period of weeks or months, others may take longer.
Factors that influence recovery time include:
- the severity of your PE
- your overall health
- your risk for future blood clots
Some ways to help improve your outlook as you recover from a PE include:
- having regular follow-up appointments with your doctor
- taking all blood-thinning medications as directed
- gradually increasing physical activity under your doctor’s supervision to improve circulation and lung function
- making lifestyle changes that can help prevent future blood clots
- promptly reporting any new or concerning symptoms to your doctor
As you recover and increase your activity levels, be sure to pay attention to what your body is telling you. Your doctor will work with you to help determine when it’s appropriate to do things like return to work, travel, or engage in more strenuous activities.