IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

What is a pulmonary embolism? Pregnant influencer's cause of death at 36 explained

Natural changes that occur in a pregnant woman’s body increase the risk of developing blood clots.
/ Source: TODAY

The sudden death of Emily Mitchell, a 36-year-old parenting blogger and influencer, shows how lethal and stealthy blood clots can be — especially for expectant moms.

Pulmonary embolism — blamed in Mitchell’s case — is a leading cause of death in women during pregnancy or just after having a baby, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mitchell was about 16 weeks pregnant with her fifth child, who also died just before Christmas. The mom was "having her morning coffee and toast when she suddenly became unresponsive" on the morning of Dec. 22 and efforts to resuscitate were unsuccessful, according to a fundraising page for the family.

What is a pulmonary embolism?

It’s a sudden blockage in a lung artery usually caused when a blood clot that has formed in the leg or arm — called deep vein thrombosis — breaks loose and travels through the bloodstream to the lungs, the National Institutes of Health noted.

If the clot is small, people can recover with immediate medical attention, but may suffer damage to the lungs, the CDC added. A large clot that stops blood from reaching the lungs is fatal.

It’s estimated up to 100,000 Americans die of the condition each year, with a quarter of them suddenly passing away without any prior warning signs. NBC correspondent David Bloom died of a pulmonary embolism while covering the war in Iraq, on April 6, 2003.

Who is at risk?

Anyone can develop blood clots in a deep vein in the lower leg, thigh, pelvis or arm — and therefore get a pulmonary embolism — but some factors increase the risk.

They include:

Not moving for long periods of time: Travelers on long flights often hear about the risk of deep vein thrombosis, but being on bed rest after surgery, having a cast on a leg or even sitting with crossed legs for a long time can also be a factor.

Injury to a vein: It can happen during surgery, a car accident or when a person breaks a bone.

Pregnancy and childbirth: Natural changes that occur in a woman’s body increase the risk of developing blood clots five-fold, according to the CDC. The growing baby means a pregnant woman may have less blood flow to the legs. Her blood clots more easily to reduce major bleeding while she gives birth. The risk is at its highest — 100-fold — in the first week after the baby is born, the National Blood Clot Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to the prevention and early diagnosis of blood clots, noted.

Increased estrogen: Besides pregnancy, this can be caused by birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy.

Certain chronic illnesses: Heart disease, lung disease, cancer and its treatment, and inflammatory bowel disease.

Other factors: Older age, obesity, a family history of DVT and inherited clotting disorders.

What are the symptoms?

About half of people who develop deep vein thrombosis have no warning signs at all, according to the CDC. If there are symptoms, the leg or arm with the blood clot inside will exhibit:

  • swelling
  • pain or tenderness not caused by injury
  • skin redness.

Warning signs of a pulmonary embolism require immediate medical attention and include:

  • difficulty breathing
  • faster than normal or irregular heart beat
  • chest pain or discomfort, which usually worsens with a deep breath or coughing
  • coughing up blood
  • very low blood pressure, lightheadedness or fainting.

How is a pulmonary embolism treated?

Drugs known as thrombolytics can dissolve a life-threatening blood clot. Anticoagulants, or blood thinners, can be prescribed to prevent more clots from forming.

Doctors can also break up the clot using a catheter that’s threaded through the body and sent to the site of the blockage.

How to prevent blood clots:

Moving is key. When sitting for long periods of time, get up and walk as often as you can — at least every two hours. Keep the blood moving even while seated on long trips or at work by doing exercises such as raising and lowering your toes, and tightening and releasing your leg muscles.

Move around as soon as possible after surgery or bed rest.

If you’re at risk for developing blood clots, talk to your doctor about using compression stockings or taking anticoagulants.

Pregnant women should let their doctor know if they or anyone else in their family have ever had a blood clot.