first aid

Air embolism

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Air embolism is a bubble that is trapped in a blood vessel and obstructs it. This can trigger a variety of symptoms depending on the site of the blockage. Remember that it is one of the main causes of death among divers.

An embolism can develop if a scuba diver rises rapidly from any depth. This causes the air to leak into the blood vessels from the lungs or nitrogen bubbles develop in the blood vessels.

It is important to note that an embolism can form in a vein or artery. Once an air bubble travels in an artery, it travels via a scheme of blood vessels that grow thinner. At a certain point, the bubble might obstruct a small artery and disrupt the supply of blood to a body part.

If a bubble travels in the veins around the body, it can cause difficulty breathing if it reaches the lungs.

If a bubble travels in the veins around the body, it can cause difficulty breathing if it reaches the lungs.

Is it serious?

The severity of the obstruction is based on the affected body part supplied by the blood vessel and the size of the air bubble.

  • If the arteries in the brain is affected, it can lead to loss of consciousness and even seizures or a stroke.
  • If a blood vessel to the lungs is affected, it can lead to pulmonary embolism
  • If the coronary arteries are affected, it can cause an erratic heart rhythm or heart attack

This is considered as a serious and even fatal condition especially if it is not recognized and promptly treated. Even with treatment, some who survive are left with lasting damage to the brain but this is rare.

What are the warning indications?

The indications of air embolism generally include:

  • Low blood pressure that can lead to dizziness
  • Muscle or joint pain
  • Blurry vision
  • Erratic heartbeat
  • Rapid breathing and breathlessness
  • Seizures
  • Chest pain
  • Bluish-tinged skin
  • Strong feelings of anxiety and skin itchiness
  • Bloody froth from the mouth
  • Weakness or paralysis, possibly of one or several limbs
  • Loss of consciousness

If these symptoms arise within 10-20 minutes of surfacing, a diver is likely to have air embolism and must be given 100% oxygen and transferred to a healthcare facility as soon as possible, preferably one that has an available recompression chamber.

Quick Note / Disclaimer

The material posted on this page on air embolism is for learning and educational purposes only. To learn to recognize and manage this circulatory emergency, register for a first aid and CPR course with Red Deer First Aid.

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