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image of a vein with a blood clot

What happens when you have a blood clot?

Normal blood clots can be lifesaving. Blood clots are a collection of cells, platelets and proteins in the blood that stop you from bleeding when you’re injured. Once you stop bleeding, the body typically removes the blood clot on its own. But if your body produces too many blood clots or doesn’t break them down properly, you can develop more serious health issues.

Blood clots can form in your arms, legs, lungs, kidneys, brain and heart, says Leland Gyr, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine physician. They can also form in one area of the body and travel to another.

What are the different types of blood clots?

Blood clots are classified according to where they’re located:

  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT): A blood clot that develops in a deep vein, typically in the lower leg, upper leg or pelvis. A DVT can block the affected vein and cause tissue damage to your limb.

  • Pulmonary embolism: When a DVT breaks off and travels to your lungs. A pulmonary embolism can damage your lungs and other organs by blocking them from getting enough oxygen.

  • Cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST): A CVST is a rare type of clot that occurs in the brain’s venous sinuses. Typically, the sinuses drain blood from the brain. But when they don’t, it can lead to a hemorrhagic stroke.

How do you know if you have a blood clot?

Blood clot symptoms include:

  • Leg or arm blood clot: Gradual or sudden pain, swelling, warmth and redness in one leg or arm (most common in the lower legs)

  • Abdominal blood clot: Abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting

  • Lung blood clot: Increased heart rate (also called tachycardia), pain when breathing deeply, fast breathing and shortness of breath

  • Heart blood clot: Chest pain, shortness of breath, pain in the left arm and sweating

  • Brain blood clot: Sudden severe headache, seizures, weakness on one side of the body, difficulty speaking and vision problems

Dr. Gyr says you should call 911 or visit your nearest emergency department if you experience shortness of breath, chest pain or a rapid heart rate. Contact your primary care provider if you have swelling, pain or redness in one arm or leg.

What increases your risk of a blood clot?

Blood clots are separated into two main categories, says Dr. Gyr: Provoked and unprovoked.

  • Provoked blood clots have a clear cause. Activities that limit your mobility, such as a recent surgery or sitting for a long time, can increase your risk of a provoked blood clot.

  • Unprovoked blood clots don’t have a clear cause. Unprovoked blood clots can be related to underlying genetic factors or other health issues.

The following factors can increase your risk of a blood clot:

Should you be concerned about a family history of blood clots?

“If you have just one family member with a provoked blood clot, you’re likely not at high risk,” says Dr. Gyr. “But if you have a family member with multiple unprovoked blood clots, I encourage you to see your primary care provider for a clotting disorder evaluation.”

How are blood clots treated?

“If I see someone here in the clinic whose vitals are stable—they’re not short of breath, they don’t have tachycardia and their oxygen is fine—and they have a blood clot, we can typically treat them with a short course of blood thinners,” he says. “If their symptoms are more severe or they have multiple episodes of blood clots, they may need to take long-term blood thinners.”

How to prevent a blood clot

Dr. Gry recommends the following to reduce your risk of a blood clot:

  • Avoid sitting for long periods. If you’re on a lengthy flight or car ride, pump your legs and feet while you’re in your seat, walk up and down the aisles of the plane, or stop for quick walks during long road trips.

  • Stay active. Maintain an active lifestyle by exercising and walking regularly

  • Quit smoking. Talk to your primary care provider if you need help quitting.

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Talk to your PCP about the safest way to lose weight if you’re overweight or obese.

  • Consider your health history. If you’re scheduled to have surgery and developed a blood clot after surgery in the past, ask your provider if you should take a prophylactic course of blood thinners to reduce your risk.

  • Review your medication list. If you’re concerned about your blood clot risk, review your medications with your primary care provider. Certain drugs can increase your chances of a blood clot.

  • Take medications as prescribed. If you have a prescription for blood thinners, take them as prescribed.

  • Schedule routine medical exams. Get regular cancer screenings and see your primary care provider annually to maintain your overall health and identify risk factors before they cause problems.

While some blood clots are part of the body’s normal healing process, others can signify a more serious problem. Listen to your body and seek medical care if you have blood clot symptoms.

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