We need our blood to clot in order to live. Blood clots are most often a good thing, like when they keep us from bleeding to death after a minor scrape on our leg, for example. But blood clots can also be very bad news—deadly, in fact.
When you have an open wound, your blood vessels narrow so that you don’t lose blood. Then, platelets form clumps of blood (aka clots) around the wound. A special protein solidifies the clump to reduce the loss of blood.
The dangerous type of blood clots happen deep in your veins.
When blood clots form in your veins, the blood flows too slowly. It’s like rush-hour traffic inside your bloodstream, angering all the blood cells that are trying to help you stay alive.
This kind of blood clot is called Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), and most of these blood clots occur after a major surgery or serious illness when you’re not moving around for extended periods of time. Most DVT blood clots happen in the lower leg or thigh.
The real risk involved with DVT is when the blood clot breaks away from the vein.
The embolus, or the blood clot that breaks free, can travel along the bloodstream and enter your arteries.
Once there, the embolus can cut obstruct the flow of blood and cut off circulation to your heart and lungs, causing pulmonary embolism (PE).
PE can damage your lung tissue, lead to other organ damage due to the lack of oxygen, or—if there are multiple clots or the clot is large—lead to death. Research shows that 10–15 percent of PE cases are fatal.
If you have one or more of the following signs or symptoms, call a doctor or 911 immediately:
Swelling in one limb: This sign is the one people are likely to notice but not do anything about.
Pain in one leg: This will feel like a muscle cramp or strain. Most only feel the pain when they stand up or walk around.
Discolored skin: The skin on the affected area of your leg might have red streaks, or the skin may look more red than usual overall.
Chest pain: This sharp and stabbing pain is worse when you take a deep breath.
Shortness of breath: The blood clot slows the oxygen flow to your lungs. This causes your heart rate to increase just to catch up with the loss of oxygen.
Unexplained cough: Your might be coughing blood or coughing uncontrollably with nothing coming out.
Just because you have one or more of these symptoms does not mean you definitely have DVT, so don’t panic.
Conversely, according to the National Institute for Biotechnology Information (NBBI), only half of all people with DVT have any signs and symptoms at all.
If you do have DVT, the doctor will usually prescribe blood thinners to make sure your blood flows correctly.
They might also give you a compression sleeve for your leg to help reduce the swelling.
In order to prevent DVT and PE, it’s important to stay active. If you’re taking a long trip, be sure to walk the aisles on the plane, bus or train every hour.
If you’re on a road trip, stop your car and get moving every hour to keep your blood flowing through your legs.
If you’re not sure, but think you might have DVT or PE, call your doctor or 911 immediately.