Air Embolism – Can A Harmless Air Bubble Really Be Dangerous?

air embolism affects mainly scuba divers

Ever wondered why the doctor taps the syringe before administering a flu shot? It’s to ensure that there’s no air bubble trapped in the syringe. But, how much harm could an innocuous air bubble do? Well, it could make you really sick or even kill you for that matter! Medically termed as air or gas embolism, it can be serious health risk; one of the many aspects this article tries to address.

Air Embolism Deconstructed

In medical context, an embolism alludes to a defect or presence of moving mass (embolus) in the blood stream. By that definition, air embolism points to a pathological scenario where an air or gas bubble gets trapped in a blood vessel.

The true extent and nature of the physiological complication however would depend on two factors i.e. a) size of gas bubble and b) location where it finally settles in the blood stream.

Causes For Air Embolism

There are many ways in which air bubble(s) can end up in your circulatory system, some of which are described below.

Injections and Surgeries

With injections, air could get trapped in the syringe and get transferred into the blood stream. Similarly, catheters inserted into the vein or artery can be also an accidental source of air bubbles.
Surgical procedures can also act as an inadvertent cause for air embolism. Case in point being brain surgeries, where the chance of incurring an air embolism could be as high as 80%, if one were to go by the Journal of Minimal Access Surgery. That’s why surgeons take every possible precaution to prevent air embolism during a procedure.

Scuba Diving

When scuba diving, it’s quite possible to get gas embolism if you either surface from the water too hastily or hold your breath under water for longer than what’s deemed necessary.
In either of the above cases, the alveoli (miniature air sacs in the lungs where the oxygen transfer into the blood stream takes place) could rupture, allowing air to move directly into the neighboring blood vessels.

Trauma To The Lungs

If you have sustained serious trauma to the chest after an accident, then you’d naturally be subjected to a breathing ventilator. Here too, there’s a good chance for air embolism, in the event that a damaged artery or vein in the lung is involved.

A similar situation could be attributed to combat scenarios involving a bomb explosion; medically termed as blast lung. Here again, the massive shockwaves may well render arteries and veins within the lungs to rupture and accept air into the blood stream.

Blowing Into The Vagina

As crazy as it may sound, air could get accidently blown into the vagina when performing oral sex. And if there is an existing injury or tear in the vagina, then that air could well be trapped in the adjoining blood vessels. Expectant mothers are at higher risk, given the possibility of tear in the placentae.

As mentioned before, complications and therefore early signs of air embolism, vary on the size of the embolus and its relative location in the body. Therefore when one’s lodged in the brain, the symptoms could range from loss of consciousness and convulsions to stroke and heart attack.

Similarly, one experiences shortness of breath and chest pain when the bubble is lodged in pulmonary artery (the one that carries blood from the heart to the lungs). As a rule of thumb, a diver who’s breathed gas under pressure becomes unconscious soon after resurfacing. Also, he/she might exhibit neurological symptoms like sensory abnormalities, vertigo, etc.

Nevertheless, basic signs of gas embolism include weakness, fatigue, dizziness, blurred vision, low BP and blue skin hue. 


Any air embolism treatment will always have three goals i.e. a) stop the embolism from the source b)prevent further damage to the body and c)resuscitate if required.

Therefore, treatments will vary depending on the discretion of the doctor, which could include positional exercises, medications, surgical procedures. Specialized therapies like placing the patient in a special hyperbaric oxygen chamber, allows the embolism to shrink to a size so that it can be naturally and safely absorbed into the bloodstream.

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One Comment

  1. Anonymous June 8, 2014 12:00 am Reply

    Where else could anyone get that kind of information in such a complete way of writing I have a presentation incoming week, and I am on the lookout for such information.

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