How Does Lung Cancer Cough Feel and Sound? Causes and Management | MyLungCancerTeam

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How Does Lung Cancer Cough Feel and Sound? Causes and Management

Medically reviewed by Richard LoCicero, M.D.
Written by Tristan Jesby
Updated on April 19, 2024

The term “Lung cancer cough” encompasses all of the possible coughing symptoms that people with lung cancer may experience. Certain features of a lung cancer-related cough set it apart from a benign cough — that is, a cough unrelated to cancer. Lung cancer cough is typically chronic (persistent) and often comes on in episodes. If you have a persistent cough, talk to your health care provider.

In this article, we will discuss the cause of lung cancer cough, how it sounds and feels, and tips for managing it.

What Is Lung Cancer Cough?

When your body becomes aware of irritants in your throat, such as mucus or dust, your brain’s initial response is to expel all of the air from your lungs. As your muscles push the air out, it helps remove harmful particles from your body. In this sense, coughing is a normal bodily function, and it’s healthy to have occasional acute (short-term) coughing. However, if you have lung cancer, a chronic cough can become a major obstacle in everyday life.

Some elements of lung cancer cough help distinguish it from coughing from other causes. The most distinct characteristic of lung cancer cough is its persistence. Typically, most benign coughing symptoms, such as from respiratory infections, last only a week or two.

However, people with lung cancer experience coughing as a part of everyday life, with episodes that are longer and more frequent. Though some people may have only a dry cough, others may cough up blood (called hemoptysis) or sputum (phlegm or mucus) throughout their episodes.

Other common common symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Hoarseness
  • Chest pain
  • Bone pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • An increased risk of respiratory complications, like chronic bronchitis

Why Does Lung Cancer Make You Cough?

Your immune system employs coughing as a biological reflex to rid the body of irritants. Essentially, a cough is a preemptive measure to remove potentially dangerous particles from your body before they can cause further damage.

In lung cancer, coughing is a gauge of the cancer itself and the effectiveness of the treatment. There are several reasons you may develop lung cancer cough.

Advanced Lung Cancer

Lung cancer symptoms don’t typically show up until the cancer has progressed past the early stages. A cough, however, may be an early symptom of lung cancer. One study found that around 65 percent of people initially diagnosed with advanced lung cancer have some form of chronic cough.

Lung cancer cough may manifest when a tumor begins to block or irritate receptors in the airways, causing inflammation. As a response, a person also may experience pleural effusion, which is excess liquid in the outer layers of the lungs. This sign can be discovered on a chest X-ray or CT scan.

In the case of lung cancer, additional liquid can disrupt the lymphatic flow of the body. The lymphatic system is essentially a transportation network that carries lymph — a fluid containing white T cells — to various lymph nodes around the body. The lymph provides nutrients to the cells and disposes of metabolic waste. However, if this system begins to overflow, the body will induce coughing to remove excess fluid. This emergency disposal may cause people to cough up blood or phlegm.

As one MyLungCancerTeam member wrote, “My husband was told that he has a lump that I knew nothing about under his right arm. This is the same side that his tumor is on. … Not sure if there is a connection or not, but yesterday he was coughing up blood.”

Side Effects From Cancer Treatment

Your oncologist may recommend various treatment options. Their side effects can vary from person to person. In a 2017 study, researchers observed that some people experienced coughing symptoms from chemotherapy and radiation therapy for lung cancer. If coughing seems to start or worsen during your cancer treatment, it’s best to consult your health care team about possible alternatives or management strategies.

It is also a good idea to talk to your doctor if you experience a cough and can’t seem to identify what’s causing it. As one MyLungCancerTeam member wrote, “I still can't shake this cough. I’m starting to think it’s not from the sinus infection but the radiation.”

How Does Lung Cancer Cough Feel?

Members have described their coughing symptoms as “uncontrollable coughing spasms” or “a nonstop cough for the last four weeks.” Some members experienced the worst of their lung cancer cough at night. “My husband is coughing so much he can’t sleep,” one member shared.

Many members have reported that their cough is painful. One member shared that after radiation therapy, they had “a painful cough and had to use oxygen 24/7.”

Another reported, “I had a horrible, painful, productive cough for about two weeks postsurgery.”

How Does Lung Cancer Cough Sound?

Lung cancer cough can be either wet or dry or alternate between the two. “Still fighting a dry, tight cough,” one member said. Another member explained, “My cough varies from loose to dry depending on what week I’m on before chemo and immunotherapy.”

If you have a wet cough, check on the color of your sputum: “Since my lung cancer biopsy, I’ve been coughing up blood all night and this morning.”

Suddenly coughing up blood could be a sign of a lung cancer complication. If you find that your phlegm is pink or red, contact your oncologist.

Managing Lung Cancer Cough

As you continue to manage daily life with lung cancer, you can reach out to your lung cancer care team to discuss lung cancer treatment for your coughing symptoms, including options for palliative care (a type of care geared toward symptom management). One member shared their experience: “Had to see a pulmonologist today and had been nursing a cough. It went really well. At least he put some fears to rest.”

Treatment options for relieving lung cancer cough include the following.

Inhalers

Lung cancer cough treatment may include inhalers. Inhalers are devices that deliver bronchodilator medications directly into the airways via inhalation. As one member wrote, “I use an inhaler first thing in the morning and after dinner. I have a different inhaler I use throughout the day.”

Exercise and Nutrition

Cancer research has moved in a direction where experts are beginning to champion exercise and good nutrition for better health outcomes, including better breathing. You can ask for advice from your health care team or a specialist, such as a dietitian or physical therapist.

A MyLungCancerTeam member noted how physical activity may pay off in the long run, saying, “Achy muscles, I can relate. Was just doing some yard work, and I’ll pay the price a little later. But the more exercise you do, the better you’re going to feel.”

If regular exercise is too strenuous due to your cough, you may want to try to ease into some breathing exercises. National Jewish Health suggests breathing a comfortable amount of air gently in through the nose and releasing it slowly through pursed lips.

Removing Air Pollutants

Though more research needs to be done, some medical professionals recommend staying away from any air pollutants in your environment. When you’re living with lung cancer, your lungs may become more sensitive to particles in the air. You may want to consider what’s in the air around you. One member wrote, “I will still cough if I get near a strong odor like candles burning, cleaning chemicals (like when I mop my floor or do laundry), and my husband when he bathes in his aftershave.”

Meet Your Team

On MyLungCancerTeam, the social network for people with lung cancer and their loved ones, more than 12,000 people from around the world come together to ask questions, offer support and advice, and connect with others who understand life with lung cancer.

Do you experience coughing related to lung cancer? How have you managed it? Share your experience in the comments below or by posting on your Activities page.

References
  1. Cough in Patients With Lung Cancer — Chest
  2. Volatile Organic Compounds in Exhaled Air From Patients With Lung Cancer — Clinical Chemistry
  3. Learn About Cough — American Lung Association
  4. A Cross-Sectional Study To Determine the Prevalence of Cough and Its Impact in Patients With Lung Cancer: A Patient Unmet Need — BMC Cancer
  5. Fatigue in Lung Cancer Patients: Symptom Burden and Management of Challenges — Lung Cancer: Targets and Therapy
  6. Respiratory Symptoms, Sleep, and Quality of Life in Patients With Advanced Lung Cancer — Journal of Pain and Symptom Management
  7. Sleep-Wake Disturbances and Quality of Life in Patients With Advanced Lung Cancer — Oncology Nursing Forum
  8. Obstructive Sleep-Disordered Breathing — StatPearls
  9. Chronic Cough in Patients With Sleep-Disordered Breathing — European Respiratory Journal
  10. The Experience of Cough in Patients Diagnosed With Lung Cancer — Supportive Care Cancer
  11. Chronic Cough Due to Lung Tumors — Chest Journal
  12. Pleural Effusion — Cleveland Clinic
  13. Diagnostic Approach to Pleural Effusion in Adults — American Family Physician
  14. Lymphatic System — Cleveland Clinic
  15. Symptomatic Treatment of Cough Among Adult Patients With Lung Cancer — Chest Journal
  16. Lung Cancer — Mayo Clinic
  17. What Is Palliative Care? — Center to Advance Palliative Care
  18. Inhalation Treatment of Primary Lung Cancer Using Liposomal Curcumin Dry Powder Inhalers — Acta Pharmaceutica Sinica B
  19. Physical Activity and Lung Cancer — American Lung Association
  20. Exercising With Lung Cancer — Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
  21. Nutrition for Lung Cancer Patients — American Lung Association
  22. Side Effects of Cancer Treatment — National Jewish Health
  23. Air Pollution Affects Lung Cancer Survival — Thorax
    Updated on April 19, 2024
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    Richard LoCicero, M.D. has a private practice specializing in hematology and medical oncology at the Longstreet Clinic Cancer Center, in Gainesville, Georgia. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
    Tristan Jesby graduated from Quinnipiac University's five-year MAT program with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s in secondary education. Learn more about him here.

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