I am coughing up blood – Do I have cancer?

There have been two research studies done, looking at thousand of people to work out how many people with a certain symptom are likely to have cancer. If you are couching up blood, then you should make an appointment and mention this to your GP. The chances are it’s not cancer, but you need to let your GP know.

So, just how many people who cough up blood have cancer?  Not many!

Cause of coughing up blood not known Coughing up blood caused by a disease other than cancer Coughing up blood caused by cancer
Percentage of cases 46 % 47 % 6 %
Actual number of people studied
(total 4,812)
2,214 2,300 298

The information above can also be shown using a pie chart:

Causes of Coughing Up Blood

Coughing Blood Pie Chart

* At 3 years from first reporting the symptom (diagnoses of cancer were most often made in the first three months after visiting the GP)

Data from:

Jones et al BMJ “Alarm symptoms in early diagnosis of cancer in primary care cohort study using general practice research database” (May 2007)

Jones et al BMJ “Alarm symptoms and identification of non-cancer diagnoses in primary care: cohort study” (August 2015)

So what does this all mean?

Well, the researchers that carried out this study used something called the “UK General Practice Research Database”. They got their information from 128 GP practices in England (we don’t know which practices they looked at for reasons of confidentiality) and looked at the records from December 2000 to January 1994. They looked at how many people, in those 128 GP surgeries had visited their doctor because they were coughing up blood, they then followed the records for three years to find out what happened to them.

In total, they found that 4,812 people went to their doctor because they were coughing up blood, just under half of these people (46 %) never found out the reason this happened to them. Most of the rest of the people (47 %) discovered they had a disease other than cancer. Very few people who were coughing up blood, 6 % were diagnosed with cancer. Almost all the people with cancer were diagnosed quickly, within the first 3 months of their visit to the doctor.

Apart from cancer, what else can cause you to cough up blood?

Lots of things, which is why it is important to see your GP. Most people who were coughing up blood had a chest infection, this can be treated which is why it is important to see your GP. Some people had Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and some had asthma. Sometimes coughing up blood can be a sign of other problems with your heart or lungs which is why you need to get it checked out.

Sometimes it can be hard to talk to your doctor because you are worried you won’t use the right words. Doctors spend years at medical school learning a whole different language, don’t worry if you don’t know all the correct technical terms, your doctor will be able to figure out what you mean. There are websites that help you say difficult words http:www.howjsay.com is a good one.

  • Haemoptysis – is the posh (medical) word for coughing up blood
  • Sputum – is the posh (medical) word for the sticky snot like stuff you cough up (especially in the mornings)
  • pulmonary – means to do with your lungs
  • respiratory – means to do with your breathing

A sample conversation

GP: Hello, what can I do for you today?

You: I’ve had a cough and I’ve noticed I’ve been coughing up blood

If you are worried it might be cancer than you are far better to ask this question outright than go away worrying about it.

You: My father/brother/mother/sister/friend had ___________(type of cancer), I am worried that this might be caused by cancer

After you’ve told the doctor, they might want to ask you some questions. It helps if you have a think about them before you go in.

Questions your doctor might ask

  • Do you smoke?
  • How long have you had a cough?
  • When is it worst?
  • Are you feeling well otherwise?

Questions you can ask your doctor

  • Do I need any tests?
  • When should I come back?
  • How do I get my test results? Do I phone? If so, when should I phone?
  • How long will the results take?
  • Do I need a prescription?
  • What are the common side effects?
  • Do I need to see a specialist?

What if I don’t think my GP is taking this seriously?

Go back, doctors aren’t mind readers, if it is still a problem, make another appointment. It helps if you can see the same GP again. If you still feel like you are getting nowhere, make an appointment with a different GP and get a second opinion, remember doctors are human too, you might just have caught them on a bad day. The Cancer Research UK website has more information on the NICE guidelines and what you should expect called “Should I see a lung cancer specialist?” If you still aren’t getting anywhere you could contact the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) or ask at your GP reception for a comment form.

A print version of this post is available called “I am coughing up blood – Do I have cancer?”. It has space for you to write answers to the questions and a section for adding notes. It is a pdf, you’ll need Adobe Acrobat to open it.

Research Paper
Jones, R., Charlton, J., Latinovic, R., & Gulliford, M. (2015). Alarm symptoms and identification of non-cancer diagnoses in primary care: cohort study BMJ, 339 (aug13 2) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.b3094

Related Posts

What is a normal blood count?

I have blood in my poo (stool) – Do I have cancer?

I have blood in my pee (urine) – Do I have cancer?

I have a lump in my breast – Does that mean I have cancer?


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