By Heather Michon

Quick read:

When air accidentally enters veins/arteries, it can create an air embolism. Some are relatively harmless; the risk is when a lot of air enters a vein/artery and travels to the brain, heart or lungs. The lack of blood flow can lead to stroke, heart attack or respiratory failure.

Full story:

What is an air embolism?

Our veins and arteries are meant for just one thing: to circulate fluid around our bodies. When air accidentally enters this closed system, it can create a potentially dangerous condition called an air embolism.

Embolisms can be caused in various ways, including trauma, exposure to a blast or explosion,  surgery, even while scuba diving. It can also occur when air gets into IV tubing or a syringe.

Many air embolisms are small and relatively harmless. The body slowly absorbs the air, and the patient may not even know it has occurred. The risk comes when a large amount of air, usually defined at 50 milliliters (mL) or greater, enters a vein or artery and travels into the brain, heart or lungs. The sudden lack of blood flow can lead to stroke, heart attack or respiratory failure.

Signs & symptoms

In most cases, patients experience few or mild symptoms as a result of an air embolism. Symptoms in more severe cases include difficulty breathing, chest or muscle pain, confusion, loss of consciousness, drops in blood pressure, and bluish skin.

Serious air embolisms are considered rare. In a study of 11,000 patients who received a central venous catheter (an IV inserted into a large vein in the chest, arm, or groin), researchers found that 15 patients suffered an embolism, a rate of 0.14%.


When it comes to IVs, nurses are trained to manage infusion sets to limit the potential for air to enter tubing or syringes. Small bubbles are not generally a cause for major concern, but nurses do look for long air “gaps” or groups of bubbles that could combine.

There are certain techniques used when priming the tubing and when giving IV medications that help prevent air entry into the vascular system. Most IV pumps are also equipped with bubble-detection systems, further limiting risks.

Treating air embolisms

Treatment for air embolisms includes repositioning the patient to keep air from moving towards vital organs, medications, and oxygen therapy.


Kivi, Rose. “Air Embolism: Causes, Symptoms, and Diagnosis.”Healthline, Healthline Media, 15 Aug. 2017,

Vesely, T M. “Air Embolism during Insertion of Central Venous Catheters.” Journal of Vascular and Interventional Radiology : JVIR., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 2001,

Image Source:

“Everything You Need to Know about Air Bubbles in Your Patient’s IV Line.” TheNursePath, 11 Dec. 2016,

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