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A pulmonary embolism occurs when the artery that carries blood to the lungs becomes blocked.
The blockage is usually a blood clot, but it can also be a fat droplet, an air bubble or amniotic fluid (fluid that surrounds unborn babies).
If it's a blood clot, this will have usually come from one of the deep veins in your legs and is known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
The main reasons why blood clots develop are outlined below.
If you're inactive, blood tends to collect in the lower parts of your body, particularly in your lower legs. This isn't usually a problem because when you start to move, your blood flow increases and blood begins to move evenly around your body.
However, if you're immobile for a long time, the flow of blood around your body can slow down considerably. You're likely to be immobile:
If your blood flow slows down because of a long period of inactivity, your risk of developing a blood clot increases.
If a blood vessel is damaged, the inside of the blood vessel can become narrowed or blocked. This can result in a blood clot forming.
Blood vessels can be damaged by injuries such as broken bones or severe muscle damage. If a blood vessel is damaged during surgery, a blood clot may develop, particularly in operations carried out on the lower half of the body.
Your risk of developing a pulmonary embolism is increased if you have a condition that causes your blood to clot more easily than normal.
Conditions that increase the likelihood of your blood clotting include:
Other factors that increase your risk of developing a pulmonary embolism include:
Your chances of developing a blood clot are very small if you're taking the contraceptive pill or HRT, and your GP will usually assess your individual risk before prescribing either medication.