Pulmonary thromboembolism (PE) is the third most frequent cause of cardiovascular death after ischaemic heart disease and stroke. In fatal PE, 2/3 of patients die within first hour of presentation. There is a clinical impetus to rapidly recognize, risk-stratify and appropriately treat patients with acute severe PE. Current recommendations present conflicting classification systems, and there is often some confusion in the clinical evaluation and management of patients with acute severe PE. This review presents a series of real clinical cases, which illustrate the available treatment options, ranging from conservative therapy to thrombolysis through to percutaneous catheter fragmentation and open surgical embolectomy. We evaluate the evidence for the various strategies and propose an algorithm for clinicians with a focus on early risk stratification and timely referral. This is particularly relevant to regional and remote centres, as well as secondary and tertiary institutions.