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Air Embolism FAQs

April 25, 2019 Family Medicine

Air embolisms, also called gas embolisms, occur when a blood vessel becomes blocked by an air bubble. This condition is rare but can be fatal, and prompt treatment is crucial for avoiding disability or death.

 

What is an Air Embolism?

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.

 

What Causes an Air Embolism?

An embolism is caused by air entering a blood vessel. This can occur:

  • Through a syringe
  • Through an IV during surgery
  • Through a catheter
  • During ventilator treatment for lung trauma
  • When scuba diving
  • During an explosion or blast

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:

  • Brain surgery
  • Orthopedic surgery
  • Open heart surgery
  • Transfusions
  • Other procedures in which blood vessels are exposed

Surgeons are able to monitor and remove these bubbles during surgery, which involves:

  • Sealing any open blood vessels
  • Reducing air in the bloodstream
  • Moving the heart above the surgical site
  • Providing heart and lung support until the bubble is absorbed
  • Giving the patient pure oxygen

What are the Symptoms of an Air Embolism?

Some air embolisms do not cause symptoms, but it depends on the size and location. Signs of this condition can include:

  • A feeling of stress or anxiety
  • Difficulty breathing or respiratory failure
  • Blue skin
  • Chest pain
  • Low blood pressure
  • Heart failure
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Fatigue
  • Tremors (shaking)
  • Muscle or joint pain
  • Stroke
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Blurred vision
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Seizures
  • Itchy skin
  • Hallucinations
  • Nausea or vomiting

Is Treatment Available?

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:

  • Removing the source of the embolism
  • Preventing bodily damage
  • Reviving the patient if necessary

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.

 

Dr. Oneida practices the full range of family medicine including obstetrics, pediatrics, adolescent medicine, adult medicine and some orthopedics. She also performs colposcopy, cryotherapy and vasectomies. Due to the volume of deliveries done, her practice has evolved to be more centered on women and children’s medicine, although she enjoys all aspects of family medicine. 

 

Sources:

“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.

Telehealth is not appropriate for every medical concern, so it’s important to ask your provider whether a virtual visit is suitable for your needs.

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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.