A silicone embolism occurs when silicone, typically from a cosmetic procedure, causes a blockage in the bloodstream. This blockage may cause serious symptoms known as silicone embolism syndrome.

Although rare, silicone embolism syndrome is a medical emergency. Without treatment, it can lead to respiratory failure and death.

Keep reading to learn more about the causes, symptoms, and diagnosis of silicone embolism syndrome.

Embolism is a medical term that refers to a blockage in the blood vessels. Blood clots cause most embolisms.

An embolism may prevent blood flow to important organs, such as the heart or lungs. Without oxygen-rich blood, those organs may start to shut down.

In the case of a silicone embolism, silicone from cosmetic implants or injections causes the obstruction. The lungs are often affected.

Breast implantation with silicone-gel inserts is a common cosmetic procedure in the United States and it’s approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Still, it carries some risks.

Breast implant casings can rupture, causing silicone gel to leak out. In very rare cases, silicone that migrates throughout the body causes an embolism.

Injectable liquid silicone is not approved by the FDA for soft-tissue augmentation and carries health risks. But some doctors still use it off-label to contour or enhance the lips, breasts, penis, buttocks, and other areas of the body.

Silicone typically occurs hours, days, or weeks after a liquid silicone injection or other cosmetic procedure. Rarely, symptoms can develop much later. Symptoms are often serious and can include:

Silicone embolism is a medical emergency

The signs and symptoms of a silicone embolism can resemble other life threatening conditions, such as pulmonary embolism or heart attack. It’s best to err on the side of caution and call emergency services if you’re experiencing the symptoms listed above.

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. If you recently received a silicone injection or other procedure, be sure to let your doctor know.

After performing a physical exam, your doctor will order additional tests, which may include the following:

There’s no standard treatment for silicone embolism syndrome. Unlike a pulmonary embolism due to a blood clot, anticoagulants and clot dissolvers won’t help with a silicone blockage.

The focus is on managing symptoms while the condition resolves on its own. Doctors typically treat respiratory symptoms associated with silicone embolism syndrome with oxygen and, if required, mechanical ventilation.

According to a 2019 case report, doctors may also prescribe corticosteroids to help to ease respiratory symptoms and reduce inflammation.

You might be at risk of a silicone embolism if you have breast implants, including silicone gel-filled implants or saline-filled implants with a silicone shell.

According to a 2017 review, silicone breast implant rupture rates range from 1% to 36%, depending on the manufacturer, the procedure, and the number of years after the surgery.

But even when silicone-filled implants tear or rupture, reports of silicone embolism remain rare.

People who have received silicone injections are also at risk of a silicone embolism. A 2020 case study reported that approximately 1% to 2% of people who received silicone injections experienced some type of complication.

It’s unclear how frequently silicone embolism occurs among people who have had silicone injections.

The only way to truly prevent a silicone embolism is by avoiding cosmetic procedures that put you at risk. But for some people, the benefits may outweigh the risk. This includes people seeking gender affirming care or breast reconstruction after a mastectomy.

If you’ve already had a cosmetic procedure linked to silicone embolism, it doesn’t mean you’ll have one. In general, the risk is very low.

It can help to know the symptoms of silicone embolism syndrome, along with signs of other long-term complications associated with implants and injections. Be sure to report anything unusual to a healthcare professional.

Safety tips for people considering silicone implants or injections

If you’re considering silicone implants or injections, you should:

  • Take the time to learn about the risks associated with the procedure.
  • Avoid purchasing dermal fillers online and injecting them yourself.
  • Ensure that you work with a board certified physician who only uses FDA-approved products.
  • Ask your doctor what to expect before, during, and after the procedure, and what the long-term risks are.
  • Be wary of doctors who seem pushy or breeze over the risks linked to silicone products.
  • Read reviews and talk with other people who have had the same procedure.
  • Know that there are alternatives to both silicone implants and injections.
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Can saline implants cause a silicone embolism?

A 2016 case report described the first-known silicone embolism in a 45-year-old female with saline breast implants. The authors suggested that, although rare, saline implants encased in a silicone shell may cause a silicone embolism.

Is the risk of silicone embolism higher with older implants?

The FDA indicates that breast implants are not meant to last a lifetime. The longer a person has them, the higher their risk of complications.

This includes the risk of implant rupture. While most cases of implant rupture don’t lead to silicone embolism, it remains a possibility.

Is silicone embolism fatal?

Silicone embolism is fatal in approximately 25% of cases, according to a 2019 case report.

How common are silicone embolisms?

There are only a handful of case studies detailing silicone embolism in the medical literature, which suggests that they’re extremely rare.

A silicone embolism occurs when silicone creates a blockage in the blood vessels. Silicone embolism syndrome is a medical emergency that causes severe respiratory symptoms.

Although this condition is extremely rare, silicone implants and injections can put you at risk. If you’re considering implants or injections, make sure you do it with a licensed healthcare professional who uses FDA-approved products as intended.