What Does A Cancer Cough Sound Like?

Coughing is a bodily response caused by irritation in your nostrils or throat. A cough can mechanically clear the throat and the airways to allow for easier breathing. Coughs are mostly caused by the common cold or other respiratory infections, but they can sometimes be a sign of certain cancers, such as lung cancer. How can we distinguish a normal cough from a cough caused by cancer? 

This article will focus on how coughing is associated with cancer, how we can spot a cancer cough, and how a cancer cough can be managed. 

About Cancer

Cancer is uncontrolled cell division caused by genetic mutations. These mutations can be caused by exposure to toxic chemicals and radiation, but can also be inherited. 

Cancer develops as tumours in different parts of the body, such as tissues, organs, blood, and bones. Through a process known as metastasis, cancer can spread throughout the body using the circulatory system. Some prevalent cancers are breast cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer, and colon and rectal cancers.1

Causes of Cancer

Cancer is believed to be caused by multiple factors. These can include environmental factors, genetic factors, or even previous cancer treatment.

Some of the common causes of cancer are:1,2

  • Mutations: Genes determine how our cells behave, grow, and divide. Any mutations of these genes result in cancer
  • Environmental factors: Exposure to certain pollutants or harmful chemicals in pesticides and fertilisers have been found to cause cancer
  • Lifestyle: Smoking or second-hand smoke inhalation is one of the leading causes of cancer. Similarly, the consumption of a high-fat diet or workplace chemical exposure has also been found to cause a number of cancers 
  • Certain infections: Viruses like HIV or Epstein-Barr are known to cause alteration of the cells and can lead to childhood cancers. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is also linked with cervical cancer 
  • Previous powerful cancer treatments: Chemotherapy and radiotherapy agents may cause secondary cancers in certain patients later in life. Powerful anti-cancer drugs were found to have the ability to alter the immune system and cells to end up causing a different type of cancer than the one it aimed to treat 

The cause of a person’s cancer varies for each individual. Your doctor will make sure the necessary tests are done to determine the specific type of cancer and the cause so that further treatment can be provided. 


Some commonly associated symptoms of cancer are:3

  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Persistent pain in a particular region 
  • Night sweats and fever
  • Persistent cough 
  • Loss of appetite
  • Changes in bowel movement, such as constipation or blood in faeces
  • Bruising of skin and swelling
  • Presence of new lumps under the skin
  • A new irregular shaped mole
  • Unhealed sores 

It is important to know that these symptoms can be associated with other diseases. If you experience any of these symptoms, please ensure to visit a GP for an accurate diagnosis and treatment. 

Cough in Cancer

A cancer cough can be caused by many different reasons, such as the cancer itself and its treatment, or even other infections acquired by the individual when their body was immunocompromised during chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

Is Coughing a Common Symptom of Cancer?

Coughing is a common symptom of lung cancer. Having a cough could be the main indicator of small cell and non-small cell lung cancers, cancers in the upper respiratory system or airway tumours, and cancers that have spread to the lungs and chest. Tumours might irritate your airways and set off a cough reflex. Mucus buildup between your lungs and chest can also be a symptom of lung cancer, which can further exacerbate coughing. 

It is important to remember that less than 2% of coughs are linked to cancer, but it is always a good idea to visit your GP for a diagnosis.4,5,6

What Does A Cancer Cough Sound Like?

There isn't one specific form of cough that is associated with lung cancer. Moreover, people frequently assume that a lung cancer cough will be particularly severe and persistent. People can cough very vigorously (whooping cough) or very subtly as if they were constantly clearing their throats. A cancer cough can be either a dry crackling cough or a phlegmy wet cough. The coughing pattern varies from person to person depending on the intensity of the lung cancer.4,6 

Complications of a Cough in Cancer Patients

Persistent coughing tends to affect people’s quality of life. Effects of a prolonged cough can be experienced as headaches, vomiting, dizziness, muscular strain, loss of bladder control, tightness in the chest, or shortness of breath. Some people might cough up foul-smelling mucus, blood, and blood clots, which could be a sign of infection in the chest or advancing lung cancer. If cancer has spread from the lungs to the surrounding rib bones, there is a chance that the bones become more fragile, and the pressure from the cough can fracture them.4 It is important to go to A&E as soon as possible if you cough up blood or feel a sharp pain in the chest.  

Treatment and Prevention of a Cancer Cough 

An essential component of your cancer care and therapy is treating a persistent cough. Tracking your symptoms and cough patterns, such as how often you cough, how that cough sounds, or if there are any secretions with the cough, will help your doctor assess your condition and prescribe effective treatment.  

Natural remedies

Some natural remedies to help manage a cancer cough are:4

  • Have a warm drink with ginger and lemon
  • Use a humidifier
  • Try steam inhalation to clear your nasal pathway
  • Cough drops to clear your throat
  • Try relaxation/breathing techniques


Medications are often prescribed to treat or manage the cough. You must consult with your doctor before taking any medication to ensure it won't react with any current medications you might be taking if you are suffering from cancer. 

Some of the commonly prescribed medications to manage and treat cancer cough are:4,7

  • Expectorants: A cough medication to clear the mucus
  • Cough suppressants: A medicine (liquid or tablet) used to relieve cough in common colds
  • Antihistamines: Medication to treat allergies and its symptoms
  • Nasal Decongestants: A spray used to relieve stuffy nose and enable better breathing
  • Nebulization: A machine that changes liquid medication to a mist, allowing it to be inhaled deep into the lungs. Nebulization gives instant relief in cases of severe wheezing and coughing
  • Inhalers: These are small hand-held devices that contain medication in a cartridge to help deliver it directly to the lungs. The medicines are usually powerful steroids

Some cough relief medications are available over the counter (OTC). Although it is not advisable to take certain medications without medical supervision, you can take certain OTC medications in case of an emergency. Make sure to inform your GP if you have taken any medications for suppressing your cough. 

Other methods

Combining natural remedies with medication will help manage your cancer cough. However, it is equally important to take steps to avoid making it worse. 

Other ways to avoid and prevent cancer cough:4,6

  • Avoid smoking or smoke inhalation
  • Take hot showers to help loosen mucus
  • Engage in mild exercise to improve breathing
  • Keep yourself hydrated to prevent throat mucus from thickening
  • Avoid heavy fragrances from products that may trigger your cough 

You must stay in clean and uncrowded spaces when you are undergoing cancer treatments. This will help prevent any possible infections. 

When to Seek Medical Attention

The ideal time to seek medical help is once you notice you are coughing more than usual. If you have a prolonged cough without any other flu-like symptoms it is an indicator for you to seek help. 

It can be helpful if you can track your coughing pattern with a few simple questions such as:

  • How long have you been coughing?
  • How many times a day do you cough?
  • How does the cough sound? Is it a dry or wet cough?
  • Does the coughing cause trouble breathing or swallowing?
  • Does the cough interrupt your activities or sleep? 

Having these symptoms tracked will help your doctor determine if any further examination is needed, such as an X-ray or CT scan to visualise your lungs. Upon further testing, your doctor will be able to find the cause of the cough and will prescribe whatever treatment is necessary. 


Coughing is the body’s reflex action to help clear anything that is irritating the airway. Certain types of cancer, most commonly lung cancer, can trigger your cough reflex. The cough associated with cancer can be persistent and tiring. Combining at-home remedies and  prescription medication can help manage the effects of a persistent cough. Similarly, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help prevent the recurrence of cough after treatment. If you are above the age of 40, you should also schedule regular lung cancer screenings as a precaution. If you have any of the mentioned symptoms, contact your GP to receive the appropriate diagnosis and treatment.


  1. Mego PA. Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. By Michelle Goldberg. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 242 pp. np. Journal of Church and State [Internet]. 2006 [cited 2023 Jan 31]; 48(4):894–6. Available from: https://academic.oup.com/jcs/article-lookup/doi/10.1093/jcs/48.4.894.
  1. Causes [Internet]. Available from: https://stanfordhealthcare.org/medical-conditions/cancer/cancer/cancer-causes.html 
  1. Signs and symptoms of cancer [Internet]. Cancer Research UK. 2015. Available from: https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/cancer-symptoms 
  1. Cough [Internet]. Cancer.Net. 2019. Available from: https://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/physical-emotional-and-social-effects-cancer/managing-physical-side-effects/cough 
  1. Kvale PA. Chronic Cough Due to Lung Tumours. Chest [Internet]. 2006 [cited 2023 Jan 31]; 129(1):147S-153S. Available from: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0012369215528432.
  1. Persistent cough – roy castle lung cancer foundation [Internet]. Available from: https://roycastle.org/campaigns/spot-the-difference/spot-the-symptoms/persistent-cough/ 
  1. Homsi J, Walsh D, Nelson KA. Important drugs for cough in advanced cancer. Support Care Cancer [Internet]. 2001; 9(8):565–74. Available from: http://link.springer.com/10.1007/s005200100252.
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Jeffy Joseph Vinohar

MSc. Oncology, University of Nottingham, England

Jeffy is an aspiring academic scientist with a bachelors in Biomedical sciences, Biotechnology with a keen interest in cancer studies. During her masters she aimed to learn more about making healthcare accessible and solutions to reduce healthcare inequalities in the field of oncology.
She currently interested in paediatric neuro-oncology and developing less invasive therapeutics for it by obtaining a PhD in coming years, while being involved with simplifying scientific research into health awareness articles.

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