Can a Cough Damage My Lungs?

Young woman coughing

A cough in and of itself is not dangerous. In fact, coughing is a natural reflex that helps clear the airways and expels irritants like mucus and dust from the lungs. But, if a coughing fit is severe or lasts for an extended period of time, components of the respiratory system and other areas of the body can be damaged.

Don’t worry—despite the old phrase, it’s physically impossible to “cough up a lung.” Instead, persistent and violent coughing may lead to:

  • Damaged blood vessels – Pressure from an intense cough may cause some of the delicate blood vessels in the eyes, nose or anus to rupture.
  • Chest pain – Coughing exerts muscles in the chest, and an extended period of coughing can leave chest muscles feeling sore and fatigued.
  • Muscle pain – In addition to causing pain around the chest, coughing can strain back and abdominal muscles, causing these areas to feel sore and tender.
  • Damaged throat tissue – A sustained cough can cause uncomfortable inflammation in throat tissues and increase the risk of infection.
  • Cracked ribs – Although rare, pressure from a violent cough can crack one or more ribs. This most often occurs in people with low bone density.
  • A ruptured diaphragm – The action of coughing presses the ribs down and in, while the diaphragm is thrust upward. This opposing combination may result in a ruptured diaphragm.
  • A bloody cough – Persistent coughing can produce blood in the lungs. This blood can be coughed up, either as pink or red mucus or bloody saliva.

When to Seek Medical Care for a Cough

If a coughing fit is severe enough to cause injury, it’s a good idea to consult a medical professional. It’s particularly important to see your doctor if your cough:

  • Lasts more than a few weeks
  • Produces yellow or green mucus or blood
  • Causes wheezing
  • Is accompanied by a fever, shortness of breath, ankle swelling or weight loss

When to Go to the ER

While uncommon, an intense cough may be a sign of a medical emergency. Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if you or someone around you:

  • Loses consciousness
  • Has trouble breathing or swallowing
  • Has severe stomach pain
  • Coughs up significant amounts of blood
  • Has a rapid heartbeat
  • Has sudden or severe chest pain

Lung Health at Tufts Medical Center Community Care

Tufts Medical Center Community Care provides comprehensive and community-based lung health services to residents of north suburban Boston. Our multispecialty medical group includes family medicine physicians, internal medicine physicians, pulmonologists and dozens of other specialists who collaborate to help patients breathe easier and achieve their very best health.

Contact Tufts Medical Center Community Care today or go on our website to schedule an appointment with a primary care provider on our team. If you’d like to consult with a pulmonologist, please call 781-979-6222 to learn about our referral process. Our professionals are here to answer any questions you may have and can pair you with the best provider for your individual needs.

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