Does coughing up phlegm mean I have lung cancer?

There are many reasons why people have a cough that produces phlegm. Most new coughs are related to an irritation in the lung such as viral infection or bacterial infection; and phlegm is commonly produced in these conditions. These coughs usually improve and then completely disappear once the infection has gone away. Some people have coughs that are persistent over months or years, and these are usually related to such things as acid reflux (heartburn), irritation from smoking, asthma, chronic lung damage, exposure to irritants in the surrounding environment, or other problems unrelated to the lungs themselves. Many of these coughs are also associated with phlegm.

The production of phlegm with a cough is not related to whether a lung cancer is present. Many people who have lung cancer don't have any cough at all. In some people who develop lung cancer a new cough may appear; in other people who develop lung cancer a cough that has been bothersome for months or years may change in character, becoming harsher or more nagging. Coughs related to a lung cancer can produce blood, phlegm or nothing at all (dry cough).

Dr. William D. Bolton, MD
Cardiothoracic Surgeon

No, coughing up phlegm does not mean you have cancer. Coughing up phlegm can be caused many things. Including infection, allergies, chronic lung disease as well as cancer. A cough that does not resolve should undergo evaluation by your physician.

Most patients will first undergo an evaluation for allergic and sinus disease. If this evaluation does not reveal a source of the cough, then a chest x-ray (CXR) should be performed.

If an abnormality is identified in the CXR, the patient should see either a Thoracic surgeon or a pulmonologist for a chest CAT scan and possibly a biopsy.

A biopsy can be guided by CAT scan or bronchoscopy.

For a CAT scan guided biopsy, the patient is given local anesthetic and a physician inserts a needle through the chest into the mass.

With a bronchoscope, the physician can see inside the trachea, search for masses and take tissue samples (biopsies).

If no diagnosis is obtained with either CAT scan or bronchoscopy guided biopsy techniques, then the patient may need to go to surgery for removal of the mass.

The contents of this website are for informational purposes only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Nor does the contents of this website constitute the establishment of a physician patient or therapeutic relationship. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

Coughing up phlegm does not have a significant association with lung cancer. Phlegm is often associated with infection. See your doctor if it persists. Heavy smoking can also produce coughing with sputum production.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.