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Overview of acute pulmonary embolism in adults

B Taylor Thompson, MD
Christopher Kabrhel, MD, MPH
Section Editor
Jess Mandel, MD
Deputy Editor
Geraldine Finlay, MD


Acute pulmonary embolism (PE) is a form of venous thromboembolism (VTE) that is common and sometimes fatal. The clinical presentation of PE is variable and often nonspecific making the diagnosis challenging. The evaluation of patients with suspected PE should be efficient so that patients can be diagnosed and therapy administered quickly to reduce the associated morbidity and mortality.

The definition, epidemiology, pathogenesis, and pathophysiology of PE are discussed in detail in this topic. A broad overview of the clinical presentation, evaluation, and diagnosis as well as treatment, prognosis, and follow-up of PE is also provided in this topic; however, a detailed discussion of these issues is provided separately. (See "Clinical presentation, evaluation, and diagnosis of the nonpregnant adult with suspected acute pulmonary embolism" and "Treatment, prognosis, and follow-up of acute pulmonary embolism in adults".)


Definition — Pulmonary embolus (PE) refers to obstruction of the pulmonary artery or one of its branches by material (eg, thrombus, tumor, air, or fat) that originated elsewhere in the body. This topic review focuses upon PE due to thrombus. Tumor, air, and fat emboli are discussed separately. (See "Pulmonary tumor embolism and lymphangitic carcinomatosis in adults: Diagnostic evaluation and management" and "Air embolism" and "Fat embolism syndrome".)

Nomenclature — PE can be classified by the following:

The temporal pattern of presentation (acute, subacute, or chronic) – Patients with PE can present acutely, subacutely, or chronically:

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Dec 16, 2016.
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