We are now getting to a point in the COVID crisis in which more is starting to be known about how this virus ravages the body.
Autopsies of patients who have died from COVID-19 are showing blood vessels that are riddled with blood clots, leading scientists to believe that, while the virus may enter the body through the lungs, it goes on to infect blood vessel linings throughout the body.
But blood clots can be deadly for any of us, COVID-19 aside. Strokes, heart attacks and organ failure can result from a clot that gets lodged in a blood vessel deep within our body without our knowledge.
Lucky for us there are warning signs that a blood clot may be stuck somewhere in your circulatory system. And, there are ways to help prevent them from forming in the first place.
Normal blood clotting is not dangerous…
Clotting of the blood is a normal bodily function. When things go as planned, blood clots any time there is an injury to a blood vessel, such as when you cut yourself. Tiny bits in your blood called platelets get “turned on” when an artery or vein is damaged. They stick to the walls of the blood vessel, and to each other, forming a plug that stops blood from leaking out.
Special proteins keep the clot from spreading farther than it needs to. And as the damaged tissue heals and the clot isn’t needed anymore, it dissolves back into the blood.
Sometimes, though, the clotting process goes off the rails and dangerous complications can occur. Clots can also fail to dissolve after an injury has healed. Or a clot can form without an injury…
Clotting gone bad
A blood clot can form in any blood vessel in your body. If it breaks loose and travels through the blood, it can end up in the lungs, heart, brain or other organs and disrupt the normal flow of blood to those organs.
This is when a heart attack or stroke can occur. But there are other dangerous complications of a clot breaking loose…
A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot that lodges in a pulmonary artery in one of the lungs. It can result in low oxygen levels and damage to the heart, lungs and other organs.
Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) happens when a clot forms deep within a vein in the arm or leg. If the clot breaks off and travels to the lungs, serious complications could occur.
Kidney failure is caused by blood clots in the kidneys. Fluids and waste build-up, which can also cause high blood pressure.
Who is at risk for clotting?
You are at higher than average risk of a blood clot if:
- You use birth control pills or hormone therapy
- You are obese
- You smoke
- You have diabetes
- You’re over the age of 60
- You have a sedentary lifestyle, or you’re resting at home after surgery
- You’ve had orthopedic surgery
- You’re traveling for a long time in a plane, car or train and you’re not able to move around much
- You have certain blood disorders, such as Factor V Leiden, that make you more prone to clotting
- You have the autoimmune disorder lupus
- You have cancer
What are the symptoms of a blood clot?
The location of a clot will determine where in the body symptoms are experienced. But there are four major symptoms you should never ignore, especially if they come on suddenly and with no other explanation.
- Swelling. When a clot slows or stops the flow of blood, the blood can build up in an artery or vein and make it swell. If this happens in the lower leg, it can be a sign of deep vein thrombosis.
- Skin color. A clot in your arm or leg may turn the skin bluish or reddish, and it may stay that way for days because blood vessels have been damaged as the clot passed through them. A pulmonary embolism in the lung can make your skin pale, bluish and clammy because you’re not getting enough oxygen.
- Pain. Sudden, intense pain should never be ignored. When it’s chest pain, it could be a sign of a pulmonary embolism or a heart attack caused by an arterial blockage. If this is the case, you might also feel pain in your left arm.
- Trouble breathing. Never ignore this. Seek medical help right away. You could have a clot in your lung or heart. If you do, your heart may also race, or you may feel faint or sweaty.
How to prevent blood clots
Talk to your doctor about your risks. If you decide together that your risk of clotting is high, your doctor may recommend blood thinners, particularly if you’re going on a trip that involves a long flight (less likely now with the pandemic here, of course, but those trips will happen again).
Practice healthy habits. Stay physically active. Don’t smoke, or try to cut back or quit.
Get up after surgery. Work with your health care team to get back on your feet as soon as possible after any surgery. The longer you stay sedentary, the higher your risk for clotting.
Don’t sit for too long. If you work at a sedentary job, get up and walk every hour and keep your feet elevated while you sit.
Watch your blood pressure. Keep hypertension, diabetes and other chronic conditions under control.