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April 25, 2019 | Family Medicine
Embolisms refer to a blockage in the blood vessels. With an air embolism, the blockage in the blood vessel is air. Air embolisms can affect the arteries or veins, but embolisms of the artery are more severe because they are more likely to reach the brain, causing a stroke. If the air embolism travels to the lungs, the lungs can fail. A heart attack can occur if the air embolism reaches the heart.
Some air embolisms are small—they are often absorbed into the bloodstream without harm. Others, however, are large and cause damage. The location of the embolism plays a role in treatment.
An embolism is caused by air entering a blood vessel. This can occur:
This condition is very rare. However, it is the most common cause of death among scuba divers. Divers should take steps to prevent embolism, such as limiting the length of dives, surfacing slowly, avoiding alcohol before diving or diving in frigid water, and staying on the surface between dives.
Some surgeries can cause an air embolism. These include:
Surgeons are able to monitor and remove these bubbles during surgery, which involves:
Some air embolisms do not cause symptoms, but it depends on the size and location. Signs of this condition can include:
Doctors can diagnose this condition with a chest X-ray, echocardiogram or ultrasound. If your doctor suspects an embolism, his or her goals will include:
Treatment options include medication, surgery and hyperbaric oxygen therapy. During this therapy, you will sit in a room filled with 100% oxygen, which helps the air bubble to shrink and be absorbed.
An air embolism is a medical emergency. If you have any of the symptoms above, call 911. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about this condition.
“Air Embolism.” Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/air-embolism.
“Arterial Gas Embolism.” Merck Manuals. https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/injuries-and-poisoning/diving-and-compressed-air-injuries/arterial-gas-embolism.
“What Is an Air Embolism?” Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/186328.php.
Maria Oneida, MD
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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.