Cough That Won’t Go Away: Is It Lung Cancer?

Did you know that coughing has a useful purpose? It helps the lungs clear germs and any harmful objects out of your airway. However, if you experience coughing that persists for several weeks or even months, it could be a sign of something more serious. Sometimes, lung cancer is the cause.

Keep reading to learn about the link between lung cancer and coughing, including when to see a doctor.

Coughing and Lung Cancer

Coughing can be due to many different reasons. Having it does not automatically mean lung cancer is present.

In hindsight, if you have a cough accompanied by the following symptoms, see a medical professional as soon as possible:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pains
  • Blood or dark-colored mucus or phlegm
  • Recurring or persistent lung infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia

Coughing due to lung cancer can be either wet or dry. It can attack at any time of the day and even during the night, interfering with sleep.

A lingering or worsening cough is only one of the many symptoms of lung cancer. Other indicators of this disease include:

  • Wheezing and difficulty breathing
  • Discomfort when speaking or swallowing
  • Changes in the voice, such as voice hoarseness
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained swelling in the face and/or neck
  • Loss of appetite, which can lead to weight loss and malnutrition

Smoking and Coughing

The majority of people who develop lung cancer have a history of smoking, which in itself can irritate the lungs and lead to a short-term cough. Quitting smoking and avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke can minimize the risk of many conditions that cause coughing, including the malignant disease responsible for 135,720 deaths in 2020.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is another life-threatening illness that affects people who smoke. COPD increases your risk of developing not only lung cancer, but also heart disease. Since smoking is accountable for about 85 to 90 percent of COPD cases, quitting is the best way to maintain good health.

It’s Not Always Cancer — Other Causes of Coughing

As mentioned earlier, there are several reasons for a cough. Short-term coughs, in particular, could be because of:

  • Inhaled smoke, dust, or debris
  • Allergies to pets, mold, or due to hay season
  • An infection, such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, or a cold
  • Asthma or another long-term respiratory condition

However, in some cases, a short-term cough can still progress and develop into a persistent cough.

Aside from a short-term cough, the following can also cause chronic coughing if either left untreated (disease) or continued (habits):

  • Along-term respiratory infection, including pneumonia or bronchitis
  • Asthma, which causes wheezing, tightening of the chest, and shortness of breath
  • Smoking, since smoke and other foreign particles, can enter and aggravate the airways of the lungs
  • Bronchiectasis, a condition where the airways become abnormally widened
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease, wherein acid from the stomach goes into the esophagus, causing irritation
  • Postnasal drip, which is when the body begins producing excess mucus, triggering a chronic cough by dripping down the throat. A cold or allergies is the usual cause of postnasal drip
  • ACE inhibitors and similar medications, which physicians prescribe to treat high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease
  • Tolerating allergies. For example, getting a pet even though you’re severely allergic to fur, or refusing to take allergy medications during hay season

When to See a Doctor for Coughing

A cough should subside or disappear after a few days to a few weeks. If a cough lasts for too long and/or occurs alongside other symptoms — such as difficulty breathing or wheezing — it is crucial to consult a doctor. He or she can pinpoint the cause of a persistent or worsening cough, as well as provide the appropriate treatment.

Not Everyone With Lung Cancer Develops a Cough

A fact to keep in mind is that not all patients with lung cancer had a cough before their diagnosis. A rare form of lung cancer called Pancoast tumor develops at the top of the lung, therefore, it does not cause a cough.

Diagnosing Lung Cancer: Is It Just a Cough?

If you visit your doctor with a cough, he or she will likely ask about:

  • How long you’ve had the cough
  • What type of cough it is (dry, wet, causes chest pains, etc.)
  • When the cough occurs (in the morning, night, after exercising, etc.)
  • Your personal and family medical history
  • Other symptoms you’re experiencing

Your doctor will also conduct a physical examination, which involves listening to your heart and lungs, as well as looking for a less serious cause of your coughing problem.

Depending on the results of your physical exam, the doctor may order additional diagnostic tests, such as:

  • Imaging tests. These include a chest X-ray and an MRI or CT scan.
  • Sputum test. You may need to provide a sample of your sputum, which a doctor will check for cancer cells in a lab.
  • Biopsy. In this procedure, a surgeon will gently pass a needle into the lung tissue through your skin, collecting a small sample for further testing. Know more about biopsies here.

Another option is a bronchoscopy, wherein a doctor will insert a small tube into your nose and down your lungs. The same tool can collect a sample tissue for further analysis. A pathologist will examine the samples under a microscope to determine if cancer is present, and, if such is the case, find out what type of lung cancer it is.

If the diagnosis confirms your cancer, a team of oncological specialists will carry out additional tests to see how far it has progressed. Some lung cancer types are more aggressive than others, which will affect your treatment and outlook. Read about the different lung cancer types here.

The Bottom Line

If you have a persistent cough that occurs alongside shortness of breath, bloody sputum, or shortness of breath, do not hesitate to see a medical professional. If lung cancer is the cause of your cough, your outlook will be significantly better if you seek help at once rather than waiting.


New Hope Unlimited specializes in comprehensive and alternative treatments for lung cancer. Call us today at 480-757-6573 to schedule a consultation and learn about your options.

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