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 blood can come from the nose, throat, upper airways, or lungs. The medical term for coughing up blood is hemoptysis. 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.
When to call the doctor
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 is 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 has 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.
Potential underlying causes
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 episodes 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 the doctor’s office setting, mild respiratory infections, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are the most common causes of hemoptysis. In the hospital setting, patients are more likely to have bronchiectasis, lung cancer, bronchitis, or pneumonia. However, worldwide the most common cause is tuberculosis.
There are some potentially serious causes of coughing up blood. These require immediate medical treatment. Examples include:
Lastly, 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 ease 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:
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 treating coughing up blood are first to stop the bleeding, if 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 will 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 lies in addressing the problem and getting proper treatment. Quitting smoking, or never starting to smoke, as well as avoiding the outdoors when pollution and smog are high, can be beneficial. Not ignoring a persistent cough 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 if you are coughing up a significant amount of blood, have other symptoms such as chest pain or shortness of breath, or if the bleeding gets worse.