Modern science and technology have made scuba diving much safer than ever before. However, this does not mean that scuba diving is 100% safe and without risks.
You may know that decompression sickness, AKA the bends, is a significant risk associated with scuba diving, but that’s not all.
Another scuba-related risk is air embolism, which is similar to the bends but not the same. Let’s discuss what an air embolism is, why it occurs in scuba diving, its symptoms, treatment, and prevention.
What is an Air Embolism?
An air embolism occurs when a bubble of air, in this case, oxygen, becomes trapped in a blood vessel or an artery, thus blocking it and causing symptoms. An air embolus generally occurs when a gas, in this case, oxygen, escapes from the lungs and enters a blood vessel. This is also referred to as an arterial gas embolism.
These oxygen bubbles in the bloodstream can cause more than a dozen different symptoms, severe sickness, and can be fatal.
Air Embolism vs. Decompression Sickness
What can be confusing is the difference between an air embolism and decompression sickness, as they are pretty similar but not the same. An air embolism occurs when oxygen escapes from the lungs into the bloodstream, thus causing potentially fatal blockages in blood vessels and arteries.
On the other hand, decompression sickness happens when excessive nitrogen in the bloodstream forms into bubbles due to a rapid decrease in the pressure outside your body.
Decompression sickness in some cases can lead to gas emboli, which is when a bubble of gas, in this case, nitrogen, blocks a blood vessel. However, gas embolisms caused by decompression sickness are pretty rare.
Interestingly, the causes of both decompression sickness and air embolisms in scuba divers are more or less the same, as are their treatments.
The Causes of Air Embolisms in Scuba Divers
A few different things can cause an air embolism in scuba divers. The most common causes include surfacing too quickly, spending too much time underwater, and holding your breath during the ascent.
If you surface too quickly or hold your breath while ascending, it can and often will cause the air in your lungs to rapidly expand, which in turn can cause the tissue of the lungs to rupture, which then causes air to escape into the bloodstream. This is known as either an air embolism or an arterial gas embolism.
The risk is that if an air bubble blocks an artery leading to the brain, heart, or lungs, it can cause serious issues for all three organs or even lead to death.
Symptoms and Results of Air Embolisms
Scuba divers suffering from the effects of an air embolism will usually start to develop symptoms immediately after to about 20 minutes after surfacing, sometimes longer. There are a variety of symptoms, typically a combination of symptoms.
Possible symptoms of a scuba-related air embolism include muscle and/or joint pain, low blood pressure, dizziness, fast breathing, trouble breathing, an irregular heartbeat, blurred vision or a loss of vision, anxiety, chest pain, itchy skin, blue lips/skin/tongue, tingling or paralysis of the limbs, seizures, loss of consciousness, and bloody/frothy foaming from the mouth.
Moreover, if a bubble blocks an artery to the brain, it can lead to unconsciousness, seizures, and stroke. If a blockage occurs in the arteries leading to the heart, it can cause arrhythmias and myocardial infarctions. Finally, if the blockage occurs in a blood vessel leading to the lungs, it may cause a pulmonary embolism.
Treating Air Embolisms
A person suffering from an air embolism must first be stabilized by medical professionals, at which point they will be put inside of a hyperbaric chamber.
How to Prevent Air Embolisms in Scuba Diving
Let’s go over some quick tips on how to prevent an air embolism from occurring when scuba diving.
- Never dive if you have a cough, cold, or any kind of chest or lung infection
- Ensure that you are well hydrated
- Ensure that you follow proper decompression stop procedures
- Never fly on an airplane 24 hours after scuba diving
- Do not engage in vigorous exercise directly before or after diving
- Keep your breathing regular as you ascend
- Do not dive too deep or too long
- Allow for adequate surface interval time between dives
This has been a rough overview of what you need to know about air embolisms and scuba diving. So suit up and stay safe!