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Where Did the Phrase “Cough up a Lung” Come From?

Cough up a Lung
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Coughing lungs up may be part of your vocabulary, but how did it come to be? What does the idiom “cough up a lung” mean? Medically, what does coughing indicate?

It’s time to demystify coughing — metaphorically and medically.

What Does the Idiom “Cough up a Lung” Mean?

Coughing up a lung means coughing with great force or noise. This expression’s origin is unclear, but it’s hyperbolical. A lung is about a football’s size, and your trachea is too small to fit something that big. Therefore, it’s humanly impossible to cough up a lung or, for that matter, cough your head off.

Is “Cough up” a Medical Term?

Sputum production or expectoration is the medical term pulmonologists use to describe coughing up and spitting out the respiratory tract’s material — like phlegm. If you read a sign that says you can expectorate in a place or an object, you can spit there.

Can You Cough up a Bit of Lung?

Yes, you can cough up a bit of your lung. In 2018, a 36-year-old man spontaneously discharged an intact cast of 10 branches of his right bronchial tree after an intense coughing spell. It happened while he was in the intensive care unit at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. The patient had a history of poor cardiovascular health and was born with a congenital heart defect called bicuspid aortic valve.

Coughing out a lung is possible, too. A 2021 clinical case report published in the National Library of Medicine describes a 44-year-old man fracturing his rib after a persistent cough. He experienced sudden right anterior chest pain, rendering deep breathing impossible. Computed tomography of the chest confirmed a right seventh rib fracture. The patient developed empyema because of his injury.

Another high-profile story was the case of a 40-year-old woman who ruptured her lung after coughing too hard in 2012. Her lung tissue protruded to the gap between her ribs, causing the doctors who examined her to hear popping and cracking sounds from the right side of her torso.

What Does a Cough Indicate?

A cough can indicate any of the following:

  • A nose or sinus allergy
  • Common cold
  • Flu
  • Sinusitis with postnasal drip
  • Asthma
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • A lung infection
  • A lung disease
  • A smoking reaction
  • An angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitor side effect
  • Lung cancer

Metaphorically coughing up a lung can mean various things, so it’s essential to consult a qualified physician to evaluate your condition and determine the underlying causes. Your doctor may even attribute your coughing to no specific reason.

What Kind of Cough Is Serious?

Paroxysmal cough is dangerous and characterized by violent, uncontrollable, painful and exhausting coughing fits. Choking, asthma, COPD, pneumonia and tuberculosis can cause it, but pertussis — whooping cough — is usually behind it. This condition is triggered by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. This respiratory tract infection exhibits the usual cold symptoms and is incredibly contagious.

Physicians typically diagnose pertussis late because many people who develop it seek medical treatment when their condition worsens after being sick for one to two weeks. That’s why there’s a great chance that Bordetella pertussis can spread to the rest of the family.

Moreover, you can seriously injure yourself when you cough wildly and frequently. In addition to cracking your ribs, sustained coughing may: 

  • Strain your muscles
  • Cause your eye, nose and anal blood vessels to pop
  • Inflame your throat tissues
  • Rupture your diaphragm

Does Cough Mean Cancer?

Coughing can signify cancer, but it can also be benign. Subacute or chronic coughing seldom indicates lung cancer. If you have a nagging cough as a nonsmoker, bronchogenic carcinoma will be an unlikely diagnosis of your condition. It’s recommended that 50- to 80-year-old smokers have lung cancer screening to detect malignant growth.

When Is a Cough a Chest Infection?

A cough may indicate a chest infection when you persistently spew lung butter and saliva with small amounts of blood. You may also experience chest tightness, wheezing and breathlessness.

A chest infection can be bacterial or viral. Inhaling bacteria like Streptococcus pneumoniae will most likely inflame your lung tissue, causing your air sacs to swell and fill up with fluid. Viruses like influenza can irritate and infect your lungs’ primary airways, causing them to produce more mucus than usual and triggering your body to expel the phlegm. Antibiotics can treat chest infections only when a bacterium is the culprit. Otherwise, you’ll just have to wait for your condition to pass.

What Kind of Cough Is Pneumonia?

A pneumonia cough is typically wet and deep but can also be dry when bacterial or early-stage viral. When you cough while having pneumonia, you may instantaneously produce noise at the beginning that goes down as you discharge air and then create a loud sound as your vocal cords close. Pneumonia is a kind of chest infection, so bloody coughing is one of its symptoms.

Share Your Takeaways at the Top of Your Lungs

Idiomatic or literal, coughing is rarely meaningless. Whether you hawk or cough your lungs up, it’s your body’s way of telling you something’s wrong. Next time you notice yourself or a loved one coughing, pay attention to get to the bottom without blowing it out of proportion.

Writer Bio

Beth is the Managing Editor and content manager at Body+Mind. She shares knowledge on a variety of topics related to nutrition, healthy living, and anything food-related. In her spare time, Beth enjoys trying out new fitness trends and recipes.

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