07/22/2013 03:59 pm ET

Blood Clot In Lung: The Condition That Killed 'Law & Order' Star Dennis Farina, Explained


"Law & Order" actor Dennis Farina, a former cop who also played one on the iconic TV show, passed away Monday, July 22, after experiencing a blood clot in his lung, according to news reports.

The Associated Press reported that Farina died in a Scottsdale, Ariz., hospital at age 69.

Blood clots in the lungs can be fatal because they can lead to pulmonary embolism, which is when there are blockages to the lungs' arteries. When this happens, the tissue that the arteries are connected to dies, leading to deprivation of oxygen to the body, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute explained that the blood clots that cause pulmonary embolism usually start in another part of the body, and then travel to the lungs. Often, they are connected with a condition called deep vein thrombosis, which is when there are blood clots in the deep veins of the body that can break off and go elsewhere in the body. Most often, these blood clots start in the legs.

Symptoms of pulmonary embolism include cough, shortness of breath and chest pain, though lightheadedness, leg swelling and irregular heartbeat can also be signs, according to the Mayo Clinic. Risk factors include not moving for a long time (like being on a long flight, or being on bed rest for a long period) because doing so raises risk of blood clots. Age, family history, surgery, and having certain medical conditions (such as cancer and heart disease, or being pregnant) are also considered risk factors.

As many as 300,000 to 600,000 people may be affected by deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism each year in the U.S., according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Last year, TV personality Nick Cannon had to step down from his "Rollin" radio show on 92.3 NOW because of health issues, including blood clots in his lungs. And in 2011, tennis star Serena Williams had to take a break from playing after she experienced a pulmonary embolism because of blood clots in her lungs.

Pulmonary embolism was the cause of death of rapper Heavy D in 2011, though the coroner's office noted that the 44-year-old rapper's heart disease could have also factored into his death.