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Serena Williams' health scare: Are you at risk?

Tennis star Serena Williams has said in a statement released to CBS News following her recent health scares, "This is extremely hard, scary and disappointing."

Williams had a blood clot, also known as a pulmonary embolism, in her lung last week, then needed emergency treatment on Monday due to complications.

Serena Williams suffers pulmonary embolism
Serena Williams says blood clot "scary"

But the condition, as scary as it is, is unfortunately common. "Early Show" co-anchor Chris Wragge noted on the broadcast that pulmonary embolisms affect at least 100,000 Americans every year.

CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton explained what happens when pulmonary embolisms strike.

"This is normally a blood clot that starts usually in the leg or lower extremity and then travels up the body, into the heart, and lodges in the lungs, can give you symptoms of increased respiratory rate, increased heart rate, some shortness of breath," she said.

Ashton said the condition could have killed the champion.

"When this clot is small, it can cause a little bit of lung damage. When it's large, absolutely it can be fatal," she said.

Wragge commented, "A lot of people sitting at home saying she is a world class athlete, one of the best tennis players in all the world. How did something like this happen to her?"

Ashton explained, "We do know that Serena Williams has had two operations on her foot recently, and surgery can be a risk factor. Usually, the high-risk surgeries are surgeries of the hip or knee, but also pelvic surgery. Really any type of surgery can increase your risk. This is an example. Even young, elite athletes can have this happen."

Could the foot operations have precipitated her condition?

"It's hard to tell," Ashton explained. "When you talk about the risk factors for a pulmonary embolism, the list is long. We know as you get older, the risk increases with age. Things like smoking, obesity increase the risk. Then there are some big ones, cancer increases the risk of a clot. Women who take birth control pills or hormones. All hormones increase the clotting risk. And prolonged immobilization. So anyone on a long plane or car trip, or surgery."

Wragge noted, "The risk doubles every ten years after age 60. So even as you get older you have to be much more aware."

"Absolutely," Ashton said.

What should you do to reduce your risk?

Ashton suggests, first of all, modifying the factors that you can control.

She said, "If you know you're going into surgery, a lot of surgeons will give a medication to prevent blood clots even before we take a patient into the operating room. And then, if you know you're going on long travel, you want to get up every hour when you're not sleeping, move your legs, stretch your legs, do a little bit of exercise. Keep yourself well-hydrated. And there are certain compression stockings that you can get, either knee-high or full-length stockings that I suggest all my patients who take a long flight wear. They can be helpful. If you have a family history of a clotting disorder, obviously you get tested for that and you know then."

As for Williams, Ashton said the athlete will be on blood-thinner medication for months to treat this condition.

"She will be able to participate in athletics while she's on the medication," she said. "So we'll have to wait and see."

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