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What are Embolisms?

By Garry Crystal
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

Embolisms are caused by blockages in the bloodstream. The cause of the blockage is called an embolus, and it can be either solid or gaseous. The embolus usually appears as a blood clot, air bubble or fat. It is carried through the bloodstream until it becomes trapped and forms a blockage.

The embolus may travel through the narrowing arteries until it becomes lodged as the passages become smaller. The arteries also carry oxygen through the blood stream to different parts of the body. The blood flow will become blocked, and tissue will die due to insufficient blood and oxygen.

Embolisms can happen to the brain due to lack of blood and oxygen. Permanent brain damage can occur due to these embolisms, and embolisms in the brain can also cause a stroke. If the embolisms are small enough, there may not be any damage to the body, but large embolisms are a life threatening condition.

The severity of embolisms depends on how big they are and where in the body they appear. Embolisms in the coronary artery of the heart can cause a heart attack. Symptoms can include severe pain and muscle spasms or muscle twitches. This can be accompanied by numbness or a strange tingling sensation. The skin can become very pale or mottled.

Embolism symptoms are not always painful. If embolisms occur in the leg, the symptoms can include a light fever in the body at the site of the embolism. A swelling may appear in one leg, but not the other. There may also be a red, rash-like appearance on the leg.

There are many different types of embolism. Most are named after the cause of the blockage. The most common is a thromboembolism, a blood clot that blocks the flow of blood to one of the major organs. Arterial embolisms usually occur due to heart disease or irregular heart rhythms. As the name suggests, these blockages occur in the arteries.

A cerebral embolism is the name given to blood clots in the brain’s arteries. A venous embolism is caused by small particles of bone marrow or fat escaping due to a fractured bone. Deep vein thrombosis can occur due to pulmonary embolisms. A blood clot in the leg will travel through the blood stream to the heart. The clot can become lodged in the lung’s arteries and result in death.

A rare form of embolism is caused by an air bubble. Air embolisms occur when a bubble of air becomes trapped in the blood. There are factors that can heighten the risk of such an embolism occurring, including damage to the arterial wall and some blood disorders. Surgery is required in the case of serious blockage.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By Bhiver — On Jun 05, 2011

@anon43393 - I would think that the larger the embolism is, including an air embolism, the riskier it might be as a fatal issue. However, the last paragraph of this article says that surgery is required in the case of a severe blockage of an air bubble, which tends to make me think that if it's operable that there is hope for a recovery through surgery.

By anon155927 — On Feb 25, 2011

while injecting drug ceftiaxone through intracath, to my three year old child, an air bubble entered the vein. it was very painful and he was crying a lot. there is no swelling. can it be fatal to him? how can i know the severity?

By anon87772 — On Jun 01, 2010

There are different ways to make the condition better, such as exercise or taking medication to open the clots or blockage from your doctor. it is not necessarily fatal, but can be the older you get.

By anon43393 — On Aug 28, 2009

Is an air embolism fatal?

By anon23165 — On Dec 17, 2008

How can you find out how much damage blood clots do to the lungs when they travel to them. My sister had 3 blood clots thrown to her lungs, and she also survived it. I would just like to have some answers about the damage that this would do, and will this condition get better?

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