Coughing up blood is what it sounds like—when you cough up blood, expelling it from the throat, lungs, or any other part of the respiratory tract. 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, a you’ll read below, it 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 major 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 mucous in the lungs. The color can range from rust-colored to bright red. The mucous may be entirely tainted with blood or only contain streaks of blood mixed with mucous.
Bleeding from the mouth (in the case of a cut, for example) isn’t the same as coughing up blood.
Potential Underlying Causes of the Coughing Up of Blood
This symptom can be caused by a number of different issues, ranging from irritation of the throat to lung cancer. Again, coughing up blood can potentially indicate an extremely serious problem, so call your doctor as soon as possible if you have this symptom.
The three most common (and non-serious) reasons for this symptom are:
- irritation of the throat from excessive coughing—this is in many cases attributable to irritation from smoking cigarettes
- tuberculosis—Although not common in the U.S., worldwide, this is the most common cause of coughing up blood
There are many other possible underlying causes of coughing up blood, many of them quite serious. Because of the wide range of health issues that can cause this symptom, it is important to see a doctor when it occurs.
These potential causes include:
- trauma to the chest
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—chronic bronchitis or emphysema
- foreign body/particles (such as a piece of food) caught in the lung
- injury to the arteries in the lung
- cystic fibrosis
- lung cancer
- pulmonary embolism
- blood clot in the lung
Lastly, certain medical tests and procedures, such as bronchoscopy, spirometry, laryngoscopy, tonsillectomy, and upper airway biopsy can have side effects that lead to coughing up blood.
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. They also may perform the following tests:
- bronchoscopy (to view inside the lungs)
- chest CT scan (to provide a cross-sectioned view of the chest)
- chest x-ray (to show major arteries, the lungs, heart, and diaphragm)
- complete blood count (to reveal certain diseases or conditions)
- lung biopsy (to remove and examine a piece of tissue from the lung)
- lung scan (to identify inflammation of the lungs)
- pulmonary arteriography (to assess blood flow in the lungs)
- sputum culture (to find infection-causing bacteria)
These tests will be used to identify or rule out certain diseases or conditions that would cause you to cough 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 and not ignoring a persistent cough will also help prevent this symptom.