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 throat, lungs, or stomach. 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 (or gastrointestinal) 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 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 aren’t serious. When a person has a respiratory illness or strong cough, this can irritate the airways and potentially cause coughing up blood.
Examples of common and highly treatable causes of coughing up blood include:
- irritation of the throat from excessive coughing — this is in many cases attributable to irritation from smoking cigarettes
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which can include chronic bronchitis or emphysema
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, the conditions above, along with lung cancers, are the most common causes of coughing up blood in the United States. However, worldwide, one of the most common causes is tuberculosis.
There are some potentially serious causes of coughing up blood. These require immediate medical treatment. Examples include:
- trauma to the chest
- foreign body/particles (such as a piece of food) stuck 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.
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 may also 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. The goals for treating coughing up blood are first to stop the bleeding and then to treat the underlying cause. If a bacterial infection is the cause, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.
In the cases of severe bleeding, your doctor may recommend surgery or a procedure known as endovascular embolization that stops bleeding.
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 and not ignoring a persistent cough will also help prevent this symptom.
Coughing up blood can be a serious symptom. 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 or if the bleeding gets worse.
Medically Reviewed by: Steve Kim, MD
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.