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Understanding Pulmonary Embolism Risk During Pregnancy

For pregnant women, stories of pulmonary embolism (PE) are an all-too-common headline in the news. Two examples from recent years include the passing of Emily Mitchell, a social media influencer who was expecting her fifth child and the struggle of Serena Williams, arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time. The two examples show the range of outcomes and PE’s ability to attack regardless of physical strength.

Women are at a higher risk for PE during pregnancy, childbirth and for up to three months after delivery. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the likelihood of developing a blood clot is five times higher compared to women who are not pregnant.

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolisms

Kevin Huls, MD, specializes in maternal and fetal medicine at Banner Health in Arizona. He helped explain how DVT and PE are related. “Blood clots that form in deep veins (DVT), if left untreated, can break free and travel to the lungs. When those clots create a blockage in the blood vessels of the lungs, it is called a pulmonary embolism. PEs can be very dangerous; in fact, it is one of the most common causes of pregnancy-related death in the US.”

Preventing blood clots

The surest way to prevent PE is to reduce your risk of blood clots forming in the deep veins. You may have heard that certain activities like air travel can be dangerous. Flying or not, Dr. Huls’ top recommendation was to keep moving. Prolonged periods of sitting or bedrest is a leading cause of DVT. If you are ill, hospitalized or have limited mobility during your pregnancy, speak with your doctor to see if added measures like compression socks could be helpful.

Know the symptoms

A deep vein thrombosis can develop without any symptoms. Some of the most common signs include:

  • Swelling in the affected limb or area
  • Pain or tenderness not caused by injury
  • Skin that is warm to the touch, red, or discolored

A pulmonary embolism is typically accompanied by more severe symptoms. Seek medical treatment immediately if you experience any of the following:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest pain that worsens with a deep breath or cough
  • Coughing up blood
  • Faster than normal or irregular heartbeat

Understanding your risk of PE

Dr. Huls explained that 74% of DVT cases occur prior to delivery, with 50% happening in the first 17 weeks. However, your daily risk for PE is highest after delivery and can be increased by factors such as C-section delivery or other common postpartum complications.

Is your child at risk?

Having DVT doesn’t pose any direct risk to the fetus. The most serious risk that could happen is when the blood clot creates a blockage while the mother is pregnant, restricting oxygen to both mother and child. In these rare cases, an emergency delivery could be necessary. Fortunately, the vast majority of patients and their fetuses will be able to receive treatment and continue the pregnancy.

If you’re recently pregnant, nearing your due date or recently had your baby and are worried you might be at risk for PE or DVT, contact your doctor. To find a doctor at Banner Health, visit bannerhealth.com.

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