23 October 2017

Can you cough up a lung?

There’s probably been a time when, after a lengthy coughing fit, you’ve said, “I nearly coughed up a lung.” But, is it physically possible?

Have you ever wondered whether it’s possible to cough up a lung? Well, the short answer is no. 

The slightly longer, more practical answer is that your lungs are too large to fit through your trachea, so even though it may feel as though you're coughing up a lung, you won’t. 

What is possible, however, is to cough so violently that your lung pops through the spaces between your ribs.

Case study

According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, this happened to a 40-year-old woman suffering from asthma. She coughed so hard her lung popped through her ribs – after coughing for two weeks.

When doctors examined her, they heard some cracking sounds coming from the right side of her body. They sent her for X-rays and discovered that she’d herniated her lung. Her lung tissue had pushed through two of her ribs. 

She had surgery to repair the lung and diaphragmatic tear. Fortunately there was no evidence of recurrent hernia at her three-month checkup. 

"While she didn't technically cough up her lung, she coughed out her lung, through her ribs," Dr Rachel Vreeman told NBC News. "It's so unusual to have this happen that it would merit this case report – unusual, but possible, apparently." 

Other coughing injuries

In extreme cases, coughing can cause you an injury. Dr Vreeman says there have been other reports of injuries sustained during coughing fits. 

"There are reports – it's incredibly rare – of people who have had their spleens ruptured because of coughing.

"There also are occasional reports of people who – and this is a gross one as well – some people are more prone to having their eyeballs coming out of their sockets [also called intermittent exophthalmos] – there are a few reports of people having problems with that from bad vomiting or coughing." 

Image credit: iStock


Ask the Expert

Cough Expert

Professor Keertan Dheda has received several prestigious awards including the 2014 Oppenheimer Award, and has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and holds 3 patents related to new TB diagnostic or infection control technologies. He serves on the editorial board of the journals PLoS One, the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Medicine, Lancet Respiratory Diseases and Nature Scientific Reports, amongst others. Read his full biography at the University of Cape Town Lung Institute.

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