Coughing is a common symptom caused by many conditions. It is a reflex that keeps your throat and airways clear.
An occasional cough is normal, while a persistent, recurring cough can indicate an underlying problem.
In the early stages of pleural mesothelioma, symptoms such as dry cough can easily be mistaken as a less serious condition. Doctors may misdiagnose a recurring cough, trouble breathing or chest pain as a chest infection such as bronchitis or pneumonia.
While dry cough is an early warning sign of pleural mesothelioma, it cannot diagnose the cancer alone. People with a history of asbestos exposure who experience consistent or worsening dry cough should tell their doctor about their exposure history.
Many people with mesothelioma experience symptoms such as dry cough for at least a few months before they are diagnosed. Patients diagnosed in the early stages of mesothelioma typically have more treatment options and a better chance at long-term survival.
What Causes Dry Cough for Mesothelioma Patients?
When mesothelioma develops on the pleura (the lining of the lungs), it causes the pleura to thicken and may press inward on the lung. This pressure may cause dry cough, shortness of breath and chest pain.
Tumors may also damage the nerves that connect to the pleura, triggering coughing. Pleural effusion, or the buildup of fluid around the lung, is also known to cause coughing in some patients.
People with pleural mesothelioma are more likely to get chest infections such as pneumonia. Dry cough is a common symptom of pneumonia.
Repeated coughing causes irritation and inflammation of the airways, which makes coughing even worse and more frequent.
Mesothelioma treatments such as radiation therapy can temporarily intensify symptoms such as shortness of breath and coughing. Aggressive surgeries may cause short-term risks — pneumonia, fluid accumulation in the lungs and pus accumulation in the pleural space — that can increase and worsen dry cough.
Patients with peritoneal mesothelioma typically don’t experience dry cough unless the cancer spreads from the abdomen to the chest cavity.
Treating Dry Cough Related to Mesothelioma
Dry cough caused by mesothelioma or cancer treatment can be controlled by medications, home remedies or medical procedures. The right treatment for dry cough depends on the suspected cause of the symptom.
Aggressive surgical options aim to remove as much tumor growth as possible. This can ease symptoms such as shortness of breath and dry cough. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can also decrease coughing.
Draining fluid buildup around the tumor can relieve pressure on the lungs and ease symptoms such as dry cough and wheezing.
Some mesothelioma patients find relief from simple cough remedies such as menthol drops, steam inhalation and drinking hot water with lemon juice and honey. Huffing, or taking a deep breath and blowing the air out of the lungs in forceful bursts, can loosen mucus from the airway.
Sitting or laying in certain positions can make breathing more difficult and increase coughing as a result. Try sitting or sleeping in different positions, including propped up with more pillows or lying on a particular side.
Avoid Coughing Triggers
Certain environmental factors or products can trigger a cough. These include smoke, cold air, aerosol sprays and strong perfume or cologne. Pay attention to what triggers your cough and try to avoid those situations.
Staying clear of smoky environments, using scent-free soaps, wearing a scarf on cold days and using roll on deodorants instead of aerosol antiperspirants are a few ways to avoid coughing triggers.
Over-the-counter medicines and prescription drugs may help ease your cough. Suppressants like dextromethorphan (Robitussin) can cut the number of times you cough. Some patients cough more because it is hard for them to bring up phlegm. Expectorants such as guaifenesin (Mucinex) help thin mucus, making it easier for you to cough it up.
Certain prescription pain killers and steroids may also control a recurring cough. A nebulizer, which delivers medication in the form of a mist inhaled into the lungs, can help.
Complementary therapies help ease the effects of mesothelioma symptoms on the mind and body. Acupressure, acupuncture and aromatherapy can help manage symptoms like dry cough. Mind-body therapies such as yoga and meditation help control breathing, which may reduce the amount a patient coughs.
Emotional Effects of Dry Cough
A persistent dry cough can cause frustration, anxiety and even depression in some patients with mesothelioma.
Uncontrollable coughing makes it hard to manage daily tasks such as bathing, cooking or household chores. It can make it difficult to sleep, which leads to fatigue. It can also increase other mesothelioma symptoms such as chest pain.
Mesothelioma patients with a chronic cough may not feel comfortable in social settings. They may feel embarrassed about their coughing and avoid public places like restaurants, movie theaters and grocery stores.
The fear of coughing in public venues makes it hard to pursue hobbies and other activities you enjoy. Talking to family members or friends in person or on the phone may be difficult since coughing interrupts conversations. This can cause a patient to feel isolated from loved ones and their support system.
Constant coughing also acts as a reminder of a patient’s cancer, which can lead to fear and anxiety. It can act as an outward sign of illness to others, making it difficult for those who want to keep their diagnosis private.
Mesothelioma patients and their caregivers can speak to their doctors and nurses about ways to minimize persistent dry cough and the emotional and social effects that come with it.
4 Cited Article Sources
Mesothelioma UK. (n.d.). Symptoms and Controlling Them.
Retrieved from: https://www.mesothelioma.uk.com/information-support/information/symptoms-and-controlling-them/
Newson, L. (2015, December 3). Mesothelioma.
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U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2018, March 1). Mesothelioma.
Retrieved from: https://medlineplus.gov/mesothelioma.html
- American Cancer Society. (2016, February 17). Signs and Symptoms of Mesothelioma. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/malignant-mesothelioma/detection-diagnosis-staging/signs-symptoms.html
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Last Modified April 10, 2019