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When Are Blood Clots Dangerous? How To Spot Signs

November 02, 2021

Blood clots, which form to stop blood loss, typically are nothing to worry about. But that’s not always the case. When clots form abnormally, they can cause major health problems -- and even death -- if not caught early. 

The good news? Blood clots, also known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT), usually are preventable and treatable. Understanding the risk factors for blood clots, along with signs and symptoms to watch for, can help you seek treatment early. 

How Do Blood Clots Form? 

When a blood vessel is damaged, platelets and fibrin — a protein found in blood — trigger the formation of a clot to prevent hemorrhaging. But when clots form abnormally, they can prevent normal blood flow through the blood vessels. This obstruction of blood vessels by blood clots is called thrombosis

While you can have a blood clot anywhere in the body where there’s a blood vessel, DVTs are commonly seen in the: 

●       Lower legs

●       Thigh

●       Pelvis

●       Arms 

Do I Need to Worry About Blood Clots? 

If a DVT is left untreated, part of the clot can break off and travel through the bloodstream to the lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism. You can recover from a pulmonary embolism if the clot is small and you receive the right treatment, although your lungs may be damaged. If the clot is large enough to stop blood flow to the lungs, a pulmonary embolism can be fatal. 

The damage to blood vessels caused by a DVT can also lead to long-term complications collectively known as post-thrombotic syndrome (PTS). Symptoms of PTS, which include swelling and pain, can be debilitating. 

Risk Factors for Blood Clots 

Blood clots often form because of compression on the blood vessels due to lack of activity, so many risk factors are related to being sedentary. They include: 

●       Obesity

●       Paralysis

●       Major surgery with a long recovery time

●       Recent hospitalization or prolonged bed rest

●       Extended travel, like long car or plane rides 

Some other risk factors for blood clots are: 

●       Smoking

●       Pregnancy

●       Certain cancers

●       Age over 65 

People with a family history of clotting disorders and women who are on hormonal birth control or hormone replacement therapy may also be at increased risk of developing a blood clot. 

How To Spot a Clot 

Knowing the signs of a developing blood clot can help you catch it early. Look for a sudden onset of these symptoms in your lower extremities, like your calf or thigh: 

●       Pain

●       Swelling

●       Warmth

●       Redness 

If part of the clot moves to your lungs and causes a pulmonary embolism, you may experience these symptoms: 

●       Shortness of breath

●       Chest pain

●       Rapid heart rate

●       Heart palpitations

●       Coughing up blood 

If you are having any of the above symptoms, you should see a healthcare provider immediately. They will ask you questions, give you a physical exam and possibly do an ultrasound, CT scan or blood test. 

Blood clots can be divided into two types, provoked and unprovoked. 

  • Provoked clots are those brought on by circumstances like a long plane ride or recent surgery.

  • Unprovoked clots happen for no obvious reason. 

Both types are initially treated the same way — with a blood thinning medication, also known as an anticoagulant. Based on the type of clot, you may be on a blood thinner anywhere from three to 12 months. If you get a second clot, you may need to take a blood thinner for your lifetime. 

Blood Clot Prevention 

Staying active and maintaining a healthy weight are two important ways to prevent blood clots. If you’re on a long flight or drive, take breaks to stand up and walk around. If you smoke, quit. While some risk factors, like family history, are beyond your control, others can be managed with a few lifestyle — and potentially life-saving — tweaks.

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