Seeing blood when you cough can be alarming, whether it’s a large or small amount. Coughing up blood is nearly always a symptom of a disease.
The seriousness of the condition depends on the amount of blood and the length of time the blood is being coughed up, but this symptom should never be ignored.
The blood you cough up may come from your nose, throat, upper airways, or lungs. The medical term for coughing up blood is hemoptysis.
When to call a doctor Over coughing up blood
It’s important to contact your doctor any time you cough up blood, as it may be sign of a serious respiratory condition.
Get immediate help if:
- you begin coughing up blood following a fall or injury to the chest
- you cough up more than a few teaspoons of blood
- there’s also blood in your urine or stool
- you experience chest pain, dizziness, fever, light headedness, or shortness of breath
What to look for when you cough up blood
Blood that comes from the lungs or respiratory tract will often appear bubbly. This is because it’s been mixed with air and mucus in the lungs.
The color can range from rust-colored to bright red. The mucus may be entirely tainted with blood or only contain streaks of blood mixed with mucus.
Bleeding from the mouth (in the case of a cut, for example) isn’t the same as coughing up blood. If you’re bleeding from your mouth, you may notice when brushing your teeth or after eating.
Potential causes of coughing up blood
This symptom can be caused by a number of different issues, ranging from irritation of the throat to lung cancer.
While coughing up blood isn’t a symptom to be ignored, most causes are mild and aren’t serious. When a person has a respiratory illness or strong cough, this can irritate the airways and potentially cause them to cough up blood.
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, in a doctor’s office setting (outpatient visit), mild respiratory infections, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are the most common causes of hemoptysis.
There are some potentially serious causes of coughing up blood. These require immediate medical treatment. Examples include:
- trauma to the chest
- inhaling foreign body particles
- injury to the arteries in the lung
- cystic fibrosis
- lung cancer
- a blood clot in the lung
Certain medical tests and procedures, such as bronchoscopy, spirometry, laryngoscopy, tonsillectomy, nasal surgery, and upper airway biopsy, can have side effects that lead to coughing up blood.
How to treat the coughing up blood symptoms
Depending on the cause, coughing up blood can be treated in several ways. If simple throat irritation due to excessive coughing is the culprit, over-the-counter throat lozenges and cough suppressants may be enough.
Your doctor will examine your chest and lungs, and will often begin with a chest X-ray. They may also perform the following tests:
- bronchoscopy (to view inside the lungs with a lighted camera)
- chest CT scan (to provide a cross-sectioned view of the chest)
- complete blood count (to reveal certain diseases or conditions)
- lung biopsy (to remove and examine a piece of tissue from the lung)
- lung VQ scan (to evaluate blood flow and airflow to the lungs)
- pulmonary angiography (to assess blood flow in the lungs)
- sputum culture (to find infection-causing organisms)
- pulse oximetry (to check blood oxygen levels)
These tests will be used to identify or rule out certain diseases or conditions that would cause you to cough up blood.
The goals for treatment is to first stop the bleeding, especially in large amounts, and then to treat the underlying cause. If an infection is the cause, your doctor may prescribe medication.
In the cases of severe bleeding, you’ll need to be hospitalized. Your doctor may recommend a procedure known as endovascular embolization that stops bleeding. Other procedures or surgeries may be necessary depending on the cause.
How to prevent coughing up blood
Coughing up blood is a symptom of a disease, condition, or illness. Ignoring the symptom may enable the underlying cause to worsen.
Prevention therefore lies in addressing the problem and getting proper treatment. Quitting smoking (or not starting), as well as avoiding the outdoors when pollution and smog are high, can be beneficial.
If you don’t ignore a persistent cough, it can also help prevent this symptom.
Coughing up blood can be a sign of a serious condition. Even if a doctor can diagnose the cause as something minor, you should always seek medical attention.
Be prepared to describe the appearance of the blood you cough up, including its color and texture.
Call 911 or seek emergency medical attention if you’re coughing up a significant amount of blood, have other symptoms such as chest pain or shortness of breath, or if the bleeding worsens.