Cough and Cancer

What Can Cause a Cough? 

When it comes to cancer, a cough can be caused by many different things. A cough can occur when you have a cold, allergies, or even an infection. These short-term coughs are called “acute” coughs.

Certain cancers, cancer treatments, and health conditions can unfortunately result in a long-term cough that would be considered “chronic.” A chronic cough is any cough that is ongoing and lasts longer than eight weeks. 

Cancer-related coughs can be acute or chronic and develop because of the following (list is not all inclusive): 

  • Cancer in the lungs or lymph nodes of the chest 

  • Cancer of the upper respiratory tract such as the throat 

  • Radiation of the lungs, chest, or upper airway can cause short term inflammation or longer-term scarring known as fibrosis

  • Some cancer medications, such as certain types of chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and hormone therapy, can have the side effect of a cough

  • Lung infection such as pneumonia or pneumonitis  

Good to Know

If you are currently taking any immunotherapy drugs, it is important that you contact your provider right away should you develop a cough. Management of immunotherapy related coughs may require the addition of other medications or adjustments to your treatment regimen. 

How Do I Describe My Cough? 

When describing a cough to your provider, it is good to include some specific details.  

  • Is the cough dry or productive? A productive cough sounds wet and may bring up mucus. A dry cough has no mucus production.  

  • What is the duration of the cough? 

  • Did the cough begin suddenly or slowly over time?  

  • Does the cough affect your ability to breathe or make you short of breath?  

  • Do you have a fever (a temperature of 100.4 or greater) or chills? 

  • Does anything make the cough worse? (Allergens, temperature, activity level, time of day, etc.) 

  • What color is your mucus? Is it clear, yellow, or green? Is there any blood present? 

How Can I Improve My Cough at Home? 

Below are some tips on how to decrease the symptoms of your cough: 

  • Treat medical conditions appropriately. If you have asthma, make sure you are taking your inhalers as prescribed. If you have heartburn, try to avoid aggravating foods and take medications as prescribed. If you have allergies, try to avoid irritants as much as possible.  

  • Quit smoking. Also avoid secondhand smoke or other environmental hazards whenever possible. 

  • Add some moisture. If your cough is dry, consider a humidifier to add moisture to the air. 

  • Rest and hydrate. It is always a good idea to give your body the sleep and water it needs to heal, particularly if you are battling a cold or infection. 

  • Increase the frequency of house cleaning. Vacuum, dust, and change your sheets frequently to help decrease dust, dander, and mold in the home which can aggravate allergies and cough.  

  • Consider drinking hot tea. You can also add lemon and/or honey to help soothe your throat.  

  • Keep cough drops handy- If approved by your doctor, sucking on cough drops can help keep a cough from coming on throughout the day.  

Are There Medications to Help My Cough? 

  • Antibiotics. If your cough is due to an infection such as bacterial pneumonia, antibiotics may be prescribed. You should continue to take these even if you begin to feel better! 

  • Steroids. If your cough is due to an inflammatory process such as pneumonitis, steroids may be helpful.  

Good to Know

If a provider other than your oncologist provides you with a prescription for steroids and you are on immunotherapy treatments, let your oncology team know. 

  • Antihistamine may help dry up fluids related to allergies (Zyrtec, Benadryl). 

  • Antitussive acts as a cough suppressor by helping to decrease the urge to cough (Robitussin, Tessalon, Codeine). 

  • Expectorant helps you be able to cough up mucus (Mucinex). 

  • Decongestant relaxes tissues in the lining of the lungs and mucus membranes resulting in temporary decrease in congestion (Pseudoephedrine). 

Because medications work in different ways, some coughs may not benefit from certain medications. If you are in active treatment, it is important to consult with your provider before starting any medications.  

When Should I Report My Cough? 

  • When you have a new or worsening cough while undergoing cancer treatments 

  • When you are in active treatment and have a fever of 100.4 or greater  

  • When you notice a change in your mucus color to green or notice blood in your mucus  

  • When your cough is causing you to be short of breath or unable to perform your normal activities

  • When your symptoms are not improved by the prescribed medications