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8 Early Signs You Have Lung Cancer, According to Doctors

Early action is important.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Lung cancer is one of the most common cancers in the U.S., and it's the most common type of cancer death. According to the American Cancer Society, more people die of lung cancer each year than of colon, breast, and prostate cancer combined. Early detection is crucial. So is lung-cancer screening, for some groups of people. Read on to find out more about the early signs you have lung cancer, and if you should get screened—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Persistent Coughing or Hoarseness

Sick woman with flu at home

"Unfortunately, most signs of lung cancer are not noticeable until the cancer has spread, but there are a few symptoms that can be a tell-tale sign for a doctor's visit," says Dr. Sonal Sura, a radiation oncologist with GenesisCare in Florida. "These symptoms include persistent coughing, coughing up blood rust-colored sputum (spit or phlegm) or hoarseness. Many people may view these symptoms as related to another ailment."


Persistent Chest Pain

Woman is clutching her chest

"Chest pain is a common symptom of many different medical conditions, including lung cancer," says Dr. Gethin Williams, an interventional oncologist in El Paso, Texas. "Lung cancer causes chest pain by irritating or compressing the nerves around your lungs. Other causes of chest pain include heart attack, angina, and pulmonary embolism. If you're experiencing chest pain that doesn't go away, see your doctor as soon as possible."


Wheezing or Difficulty Breathing

Mature woman having heart attack on stairs, outdoors

"If you have difficulty breathing or wheezing, it could be a sign of lung cancer," says Williams. "Lung cancer can obstruct the airways, making it difficult to breathe."


Pneumonia That Won't Go Away

Sick woman lying in bed with high fever.

"One of the most common early symptoms of lung cancer most people might not know about is pneumonia that just doesn't seem to resolve," says Dr. Puja Uppal, a Michigan-based family medicine physician. "This, without a doubt, increases my suspicion for lung cancer." 

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Noisy Breathing

Woman Feeling Sick or Sad Wrapped in Cozy Blue Blanket

"A sign of lung cancer most people don't know about is called an inspiratory stridor," says Uppal. "Our airway and lungs together are essentially a musical instrument. If there's a mass in your airway or lungs, it could obstruct the air you're breathing in and out. This obstruction causes a change in the flow of air that you're breathing in. The end result is an audible sound."

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Persistent Fever

"A fever can be caused by many different things, including lung cancer," says Williams. "Lung cancer can cause a fever by causing inflammation and the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines, small molecules that regulate the immune system. Also, lung cancer can block airways causing infection."

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Excessive Sweating, Especially at Night

man stressed in bed that he can't sleep

"Lung cancer can cause excessive sweating by causing the body to overheat," says Williams. "This is because the cancerous cells use more energy and produce more heat than normal cells and cause the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Sweating is your body's way of trying to cool down."


Unexplained Weight Loss

weight loss

"Weight loss is a common symptom of many different medical conditions, including lung cancer," says Williams. "Lung cancer causes weight loss because cancer diverts nutrients to itself, starving the body."


Early Detection Is Crucial

talk to doctor

"When it comes to lung cancer, one of the most important things to know is that early detection can actually save your life," says Uppal. "I encourage all my patients to leverage preventative care services to achieve their best health outcomes. In this case, it would be getting a low-dose lung cancer screening CT scan (LDCT)."

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends yearly lung cancer screening with LDCT for people who

  • Have a 20 pack-year or more smoking history, and
  • Are current smokers or have quit within the past 15 years, and
  • Are between 50 and 80 years old

A "pack-year" is defined as smoking an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for one year. 

And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor. Read more about Michael
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