What Coughing Up Blood Could Mean

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Senior Caucasian man coughing during doctor's exam while doctor checks back with stethoscope

It can be very disconcerting to develop a coughing fit, look at the sputum and ask yourself, “Why am I coughing up blood?” However, blood-tinged sputum is not uncommon, nor is it always cause for alarm. Find out when you should be concerned about hemoptysis (coughing up blood), and when it’s OK to try treating it at home.

Why You Might Be Coughing Up Blood

Coughing up blood means expelling bloody sputum (mucus) from the lungs. Sometimes people ‘spit up’ blood, which is not the same thing as coughing up blood. Spitting up blood can mean spitting out bloody saliva due to an injury or nosebleed, or it might mean vomiting up stomach contents with blood in them. These situations should be assessed and treated accordingly.

But bloody sputum originates in the lungs and can only be expelled through coughing. Although it can look scary, you might cough up blood for many non-emergent reasons including:

  • After a medical procedure like bronchoscopy

  • Bronchitis

  • Pneumonia

  • Ruptured blood vessel in the throat due to violent coughing (particularly if you take blood thinners or anticoagulant medications)

While each of these may warrant a trip to your primary healthcare provider, they don’t necessarily require emergency care unless they meet a few other criteria.

When to Seek Emergency Medical Care for Coughing Up Blood

Any time a child coughs up blood, you should go to an emergency room. Children often cough up blood due to inhaling a foreign object, which represents a dangerous threat to their breathing.

Adults likewise should seek urgent medical care for coughing up blood if:

Try to preserve some of the bloody sputum in a container to show the doctor. Also try to keep track of when you started coughing and how long it has lasted. Note whether anything specific triggers the coughing. Your doctor will ask you all these questions before proceeding with diagnostic testing.
Doctors may order several different types of tests to determine a cause for hemoptysis. You likely will undergo a chest X-ray, and you may also have a chest CT scan (computed tomography) done. Lab work may include a test of your blood clotting factors. Your doctor may want to do a bronchoscopy, which involves inserting a thin, flexible scope into your lungs to examine them with a camera.

Sometimes, a serious health condition causes coughing up blood. The diagnostic process is designed to identify these causes and treat them accordingly. 

Serious reasons for coughing up blood include:

Treating Hemoptysis

Unless your situation meets the above criteria for emergency medical intervention, you probably can safely try treating your coughing at home. Avoid using over-the-counter cough suppressants, as these can lead to airway blockages. Instead, try these home remedies:

  • Drinking plenty of water, which will thin mucus and allow it to be more easily expelled from the lungs

  • Sipping ginger tea or warm water with honey

  • Taking a steamy shower to open and hydrate the airways

  • Sucking on hard candies to increase saliva and sooth your throat

If your symptoms worsen or you have concerns, seek prompt medical attention from a healthcare professional. Infections like pneumonia can easily be treated with antibiotic medications, while more serious causes of coughing up blood may require ongoing treatment and monitoring. Although coughing up blood-tinged sputum may provoke anxiety, most times it doesn’t indicate a serious medical problem and you can try treating it at home initially, unless symptoms worsen.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Aug 7
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