Is Coughing After a Car Accident a Sign of Serious Injuries?

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Persistent coughing after a car accident is often the sign of a more serious internal injury. Common internal injuries that can cause coughing after a car crash include broken bones, such as a fractured rib or breastbone, and more severe injuries, like a punctured or collapsed lung.

If you have begun to experience frequent coughing or unusual pain with coughing after a car accident, seek medical attention immediately. The blunt force trauma of the collision could have caused significant damage beneath the surface of your skin that is not visible to the naked eye.

Here is everything you need to know about coughing after a crash, from the most common accident injuries that can cause a cough to the recommended course of action if you believe the negligence of another driver caused your injuries.

What Types of Car Accident Injuries Can Cause Coughing?

A cough is typically your body’s response to an irritant in your throat or airway. In most cases, a cough is caused by something minor like improperly swallowing food or drink. After a crash, a cough can be a sign that something more serious is obstructing your ability to breathe.

Consider the most common types of car accident injuries that can cause coughing.

Punctured Lung

As the name suggests, a punctured lung refers to a hole in one of your lungs. The hole is often caused by a fractured rib or sternum bone that lodges directly into the soft tissue of the lung. It can result in trouble breathing, chest pain, accelerated heart rate, and coughing up blood.

A punctured lung creates a major risk of internal bleeding, also known as a pulmonary hemorrhage.  In addition to  the risk of blood blocking your airways, the hole can allow air to seep into the chest cavity. Once air enters the chest cavity, it can potentially collapse the lung, making it incredibly difficult to breathe.

When left untreated, this serious injury can be extremely life-threatening. If you’ve begun to cough persistently after your accident, or are actively coughing up blood, seek medical care for a diagnosis as soon as possible.

Collapsed Lung

A collapsed lung occurs when a puncture wound in the soft tissue allows air to fill the space between the lung and the chest wall. Once the air becomes trapped in this space, it prevents the lung from properly filling with air and can cause it to deflate or collapse completely.

Most accident victims are immediately aware something is wrong if they suffer a severe injury like a collapsed lung. Also known as pneumothorax, a collapsed lung can cause difficulty breathing, shallow or rapid breathing, lightheadedness, and a blue hue to the skin.

A collapsed lung is life-threatening, especially when it is not immediately treated by a medical professional. If you are experiencing difficulty taking deep breaths, feeling immense pain when breathing or coughing, or have an unusually fast heart rate, seek medical treatment immediately.

Bruised or Broken Ribs

X-rays of human rib bones.

A bruised or broken (fractured) rib occurs when the force of impact during a crash cracks or shatters one of the 24 rib bones in the chest. The momentum of an auto accident can cause an accident victim to collide with the steering wheel or airbag, which can greatly damage the ribs.

Common signs of a rib fracture include swelling or tenderness in the chest, abdominal pain, and sharp pain when breathing or coughing. 85% of accident victims with a broken rib suffer from a chronic cough and have difficulty taking deep breaths for upwards of three weeks after the crash.

A broken rib is not life-threatening, but it can have life-changing consequences. Rib bones that have been completely severed can become displaced in the chest cavity or puncture nearby internal organs, like the heart. Seek medical care if you believe you’ve broken a rib in a crash.

Bruised or Broken Sternum

The sternum is the long, flat bone located in the center of the chest that connects each of the ribs. Like a rib injury, a sternum injury is most often caused by a collision with a hard object, such as the vehicle’s steering wheel or dashboard. The momentum of a releasing airbag can also damage the sternum, leading to shortness of breath and dry coughing after a car accident.

Also known as the breastbone, sternum damage is one of the major causes of chest pain after a car accident. Damage to the sternum can injure your throat or airway, like the trachea. Other signs of a bruised or broken sternum include discoloration or bruising of the chest, swelling, and stiffness.

Pulmonary Contusion

A pulmonary contusion is the medical term for a bruised lung. The word pulmonary refers to ‘of the lung,’ and contusion means bruise. A pulmonary contusion occurs when trauma to the chest, such as crash-related chest injuries, ruptures capillaries and blood vessels in the lungs. They are often caused by a direct collision with the vehicle’s airbag or seat belt.

Symptoms of a pulmonary contusion include soreness and discoloration of the chest. More severe contusions may involve other soft tissue damage, like tender muscles, and may cause you to cough up blood. Though it’s not life-threatening, a pulmonary contusion can create discomfort and shortness of breath for several weeks.

Pulmonary Embolism

A pulmonary embolism refers to an obstruction of an artery in the lungs, typically by a blood clot or air bubble. Pulmonary embolisms often start in the legs and travel up into the heart and lungs; however, severe chest trauma from a car accident can also cause a blood clot to develop.

The most common signs of a pulmonary embolism include shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, and cough. A pulmonary embolism can quickly become fatal when left untreated, making time of the essence for those who believe they’ve suffered this serious injury. Treatment to break up the clot dramatically reduces the risk of death, but it must be administered as promptly as possible.

Seat Belt Syndrome

Seat belt syndrome is a collection of crash-related injuries from a traditional shoulder strap and lap belt vehicle restraint system. It is diagnosed by a noticeable seat belt bruise across the upper body, as well as some degree of internal organ injury or a bone fracture in the middle to lower body.

Accident victims with seat belt syndrome often experience extreme chest and abdominal pain, shortness of breath, and abnormal bowel movements from soft tissue damage and broken bones. Damage to internal organs, such as a pulmonary contusion, may cause coughing in those with seat belt syndrome. Likewise, those with a fractured rib or sternum may experience trouble breathing.

Seat belt syndrome is often not life-threatening, but the side effects may be life-changing without proper medical care. Internal injuries like fractured bones can potentially puncture organs such as the lungs or heart and cause lasting repercussions for a victim.

What to Do If You’re Coughing After a Car Accident?

Female car accident victim coughs while doctor examines her.

Do not take coughing after a car accident lightly. A cough is a primary indication that something is damaged beneath the surface of your skin. Only a medical professional has the resources to diagnose this type of injury, so immediate medical care is essential.

After a car accident, a medical professional will order a series of diagnostic imaging tests to get a better look at your injuries. Accident victims with a cough will often undergo a chest x-ray and CT scan to check for internal organ damage, along with blood pressure and heart rate monitoring.

Medical treatment for coughing after a car accident relies on the specific injury diagnosis. Mild injuries, like a pulmonary contusion, may require a few weeks of rest and over-the-counter pain medication to heal. More severe injuries, like a pulmonary embolism or collapsed lung, may require minor surgery and several days to several weeks in the hospital.

Recovering from Lung Injuries Caused by Car Accidents

The recovery period for lung injuries caused by car accidents ranges from one week to several months, depending on the severity of the injury. You may be required to receive repeat x-rays in the short-term to monitor the healing process, but most people do return to 100% health.

Unfortunately, those with more severe injuries may spend multiple days or even weeks in the hospital or traveling back and forth to doctor’s visits to recover. The recovery period can create thousands of dollars worth of medical bills, travel expenses, and lost wages in a very short time.

If you’ve experienced a lung injury from an auto accident and have acquired weeks’ worth of debt, a car accident lawyer can help. An accident attorney is well-versed in filing accident claims with the insurance company and can help you file a lawsuit against the at-fault driver if necessary.

The types of expenses you can regain from a lung injury lawsuit include but are not limited to:

  • Past and future medical expenses
  • Travel and accommodation fees for medical treatment
  • Property damage expenses, such as vehicle repair costs
  • Lost wages, including vacation and sick days
  • Pain and suffering

Get Help from an Experienced Car Accident Attorney

No one anticipates they’ll be involved in a car accident or that a cough after a car accident could be potentially life-threatening. At David Bryant Law, we understand that the shock of an auto accident and the pain of an internal injury can be a lot to handle. We’re here to help.

Our Louisville, Kentucky law firm has more than 15 years of experience helping accident victims and their loved ones navigate the complexities of personal injury car accident cases. We fight for your right to compensation, so you can focus on what’s most important—healing.

If you or someone you love has suffered a lung or chest injury in a car accident that was limited or no fault of your own, reach out today for a free consultation with a personal injury lawyer.

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David G. Bryant is certified to practice in all state courts in Kentucky, and federal courts in the Eastern and Western districts of Kentucky, Southern District of New York, Southern District of West Virginia, Northern District of Ohio, Middle District of Tennessee, and Western District of Pennsylvania. He is licensed to practice before the United States Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.