Lung Cancer Cough: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

Lung Cancer Cough: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments


The common cold, acid reflux, and allergies are common culprits of coughing. However, a persistent or worsening cough may also be an early symptom of lung cancer. A lung cancer cough can be wet (occurs with mucus) or dry (occurs without mucus). Not everyone with lung cancer develops a cough in the early stages, but a persistent cough is likely to appear as the cancer progresses. 

Several factors can contribute to a lung cancer cough—the tumor, underlying health conditions, and cancer treatment. There are many types of lung cancer, but studies show that small cell lung cancer and squamous cell carcinoma are most likely to cause coughing. 

A persistent cough doesn’t ultimately mean you have lung cancer, but speaking with a healthcare provider if you develop a cough is important. They can offer testing to detect health conditions early and suggest appropriate treatment options, if necessary.

Coughing is a very common symptom, so it’s not always easy to tell when a cough is related to lung cancer. However, the following characteristics may point toward a lung cancer cough:

  • Dry cough with white or yellow mucus
  • Cough that doesn’t go away or that gets worse over time
  • Chest pain
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath
  • Itchy throat
  • A cough that disrupts sleep or affects speech
  • Occurs alongside infections like bronchitis or pneumonia

Sometimes, lung cancer can damage the blood vessels in your airways, which may lead to coughing up blood. A bloody cough occurs in about 15-30% of people with lung cancer.

There are a number of possible reasons you may be experiencing cough when you have lung cancer, including the tumor itself, cancer treatment, and environmental factors.

Growing Tumor

A tumor growing in the lungs can block the airway tubes (known as the bronchi) and trigger a cough. Tumors may also irritate the airways, which can lead to coughing. Certain types of lung tumor cells, such as carcinoid tumors, can also release hormones like serotonin. Serotonin can restrict your bronchi, which may eventually lead to symptoms like coughing and wheezing.

Lung Cancer Treatment

Certain lung cancer treatments may cause coughing as a side effect. For example, radiation therapy may cause the thickening, hardening, and scarring of the lung tissue—a condition called pulmonary fibrosis. As a result, you may develop a chronic and dry cough.

Underlying Health Conditions

Cancer and its treatments (e.g., chemotherapy) weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to infections like pneumonia and COVID-19—both of which cause coughing. Other conditions that can also cause persistent coughing if you have lung cancer include tuberculosis, H. pylori infection, and the flu.

Environmental Factors

Some environmental factors may contribute to or worsen cough in people with lung cancer. Poor posture, drastic weather changes, and being in an air-conditioned room can all trigger coughing episodes.

While cancer treatment can sometimes worsen a cough, it’s still important to receive treatment for your condition. Cancer treatments like chemotherapy or radiation therapy may help relieve most lung cancer symptoms but may sometimes make a cough worse.

In addition to cancer treatment, your healthcare provider may recommend the following remedies to relieve your coughing:

  • Demulcants: Syrups and lozenges (cough drops) that soothe irritated or inflamed mucous membranes of the upper respiratory tract
  • Opioids: Help restrain the coughing reflux in the brain
  • Peripherally acting antitussives: Reduce the frequency of coughing by suppressing how quickly your sensory nerves produce coughing
  • Cough suppression exercises: Breathing exercises and swallowing or sipping water to help suppress coughing
  • Endobronchial brachytherapy (EBBT): Uses radiation to target a tumor that’s obstructing the airways and relieve cough symptoms
  • Complementary therapy: Though research is limited, acupuncture may be a promising cough remedy for treating a lung cancer cough.

There is no surefire way to prevent coughing if you live with lung cancer. While lung cancer can develop with no apparent cause, factors like smoking, secondhand smoking, and exposure to radon, arsenic, and other chemicals can contribute to the development of this condition. Taking measures to avoid or limit these risk factors can significantly reduce your chances of developing lung cancer and its subsequent symptoms.

If you’ve already received a lung cancer diagnosis, there are some things you can do to boost your immune system and reduce the risk of infections that can cause persistent coughing. Consider eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, staying hydrated, and getting plenty of rest.

These self-care tips may also help prevent frequent coughing episodes and relieve symptoms:

  • Drink warm water instead of cold water
  • Try warm tea with ginger
  • Eat honey (e.g., one teaspoon)
  • Install a humidifier in your home

Most mild coughs subside within 3-8 weeks. A cough lasting over eight weeks is known as chronic (long-term). If you experience a cough lasting up to two months or more, it is best to seek medical attention. This is particularly important if the cough gets worse, doesn’t respond to over-the-counter (OTC) treatments, or occurs alongside symptoms like:

  • Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Blood in the mucus
  • Trouble breathing
  • Wheezing

Persistent coughing can be extremely uncomfortable and disruptive to your life. If your symptoms aren’t going away, seeing a healthcare provider can help you get a proper diagnosis and prompt treatment.

While a cough can occur for several reasons (e.g., allergies or the common cold), a persistent or worsening cough may be a sign of lung cancer. A lung cancer cough can happen if a tumor is irritating your airways, you’re receiving cancer treatment, or you have underlying health conditions.

Seeing a healthcare provider if you have a cough that doesn’t go away is essential. They can help you get the treatment you need and reduce the risk of complications.

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