Pulmonary Embolism Symptoms, 
Diagnosis, and Tests

A pulmonary embolism (PE) occurs when a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) blood clot breaks off and travels to the lungs. Sometimes, the only signs of a PE are DVT symptoms. Making it even more difficult, it’s possible to have a PE and show no symptoms at all. However, it’s still important to recognize the symptoms of a PE. If you have any, see your healthcare professional right away—a PE can be life threatening if left untreated.

Pulmonary embolism (PE) symptoms

  • Unexplained shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • Chest pain under the rib cage that may worsen with deep breathing
  • Coughing or coughing up blood
  • A rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Feeling lightheaded or passing out

I thought maybe I had a kidney stone. That’s what it was similar to, but it turned out it was a PE.

Hear Tiffany describe her symptoms.

How is a pulmonary embolism diagnosed?

When you see your healthcare professional, he or she will likely start with a physical exam that includes your lungs. Then, he or she may follow up with different tests to look for blood clots in your lungs. Which tests you have will depend on your current symptoms, risk factors, other health conditions, and availability of the tests at your doctor’s office or hospital.

Tests for pulmonary embolism

  • D-dimer blood test

    This test looks for a substance in your blood that increases when blood clots are forming. A normal result means a clot is not likely. A high result means that a clot is present.

  • Computed tomography (CT) scan or CAT scan

    These tests help your healthcare professional to see if there are clots in your lungs. During a CT or CAT scan, dye is injected into your bloodstream through your arm to help blood clots show up better in the images. Then, you’ll lie still on a table while a special X-ray machine rotates around you, taking pictures from many angles.

  • Lung ventilation/perfusion scan

    Also called a VQ scan, this test can help detect PE by using a radioactive substance to show how well oxygen and blood are flowing to all the areas in your lungs.

Your healthcare professional may also order additional tests to rule out other conditions, including:

  • Echocardiography (echo)
  • EKG (electrocardiogram)
  • Chest X-ray
  • Chest MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)