What Are the Early Symptoms of Lung Cancer?

Medically Reviewed By Adithya Cattamanchi, M.D.
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You may not experience symptoms of lung cancer in the early stage. It is important to pay attention to symptoms such as changes in breathing, wheezing, and coughing. The two main types of lung cancer are non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC). There are an estimated 225,000 new cases of lung cancer in the United States each year. NSCLC accounts for 80–85% of these cases.

You may not experience symptoms in the early stage of lung cancer. However, yearly screenings can help detect it as soon as possible.

This article explains symptoms that you may experience as the first signs of lung cancer.

What are the early symptoms of lung cancer?

A person is breathing cold air outside.
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Doctors diagnose 16% of lung cancers in the early stage. It is important to contact your doctor as soon as you notice symptoms of lung cancer.

Early symptoms of lung cancer can include:

Cough

A cough affects 50–70% of people with lung cancer. The cough may gradually worsen over time.

Spitting up blood affects 15–30% of people. Coughing up spit or phlegm the color of rust may also be a sign of lung cancer.

Learn more about possible causes of coughing up blood.

Chest pain

About 20–40% of people with lung cancer experience chest pain. You may find that chest pain worsens when you laugh or cough.

Learn more about chest pain.

Shortness of breath

Dyspnea, or difficulty breathing, affects 25–40% of people with lung cancer at the time of diagnosis.

You may experience shortness of breath as a result of a chest infection. Lung cancer may make you more likely to develop a chest infection.

Learn about when to see a doctor for shortness of breath. You can also learn about ways of coping with shortness of breath with lung cancer.

Wheezing

The new onset of wheezing may be a symptom of lung cancer. Vibrations in a narrow airway may cause wheezing.

As with other symptoms of lung cancer, there may be other causes of wheezing. Contact your doctor if you begin wheezing so that you can receive an accurate diagnosis.

Learn more about possible causes of wheezing.

Hoarseness

Irritation or injury to the vocal cords can cause hoarseness.

Hoarseness may go away on its own after a short period of time. Contact your doctor if you experience hoarseness that does not go away. This may be a sign of lung cancer.

Find out more about what can cause a hoarse voice.

Loss of appetite and weight loss

Loss of appetite and significant weight loss affect about 60% of people with lung cancer at the time of diagnosis.

Contact your doctor if you lose more than 5% of your usual body weight in 6–12 months.

Learn more about what can cause unexpected weight loss.

Fatigue

Fatigue is a common symptom of lung cancer. You may experience fatigue as an early symptom and as the cancer progresses.

Changes in your central nervous system, melanin production, and other cancer-related changes can cause primary fatigue.

You may experience secondary fatigue as a result of:

  • disruptions to your sleep
  • emotional distress
  • malnutrition
  • infection
  • reduced physical activity
  • medications

Find out when to contact a doctor for fatigue.

Infections

Lung cancer may make you more likely to develop an infection, such as bronchitis or pneumonia. An infection may not go away, or it may keep returning.

Contact your doctor if you have a persistent or recurring infection.

What are the early symptoms of lung cancer in nonsmokers?

The main cause of lung cancer is smoking. Smoking accounts for about 90% of lung cancer cases. However, you can still develop lung cancer if you do not smoke.

Early symptoms of lung cancer in people who do not smoke are similar to symptoms of those who do. However, lung cancer may develop more slowly in people who do not smoke.

Adenocarcinoma is the most common type of lung cancer diagnosed in people who do not smoke. Adenocarcinoma is a type of NSCLC. Learn about adenocarcinoma.

What are some other symptoms of lung cancer?

As the cancer spreads or advances, you may experience other symptoms of lung cancer.

Other symptoms of lung cancer may include:

Syndromes

Lung cancer may also cause syndromes. These present as groups of symptoms.

Possible syndromes you may experience with lung cancer include:

  • Horner’s syndrome
  • superior vena cava syndrome
  • paraneoplastic syndromes, such as:
    • syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone
    • Cushing’s syndrome
    • Lambert-Eaton syndrome
    • paraneoplastic cerebellar degeneration

Learn more about symptoms of advanced lung cancer. You can also learn more about paraneoplastic syndromes and their relationship to cancer.

Q:

Can I have lung cancer for years without knowing?

Anonymous

A:

People can (and typically do) have lung cancer for years without knowing. It usually takes several years for cancer to develop and grow to a size that causes physical changes.

Symptoms are also often absent in the early stages. Once symptoms do appear, people may also not recognize them as being related to cancer or may ignore them, further delaying diagnosis.

Adithya Cattamanchi, MD

Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.

When should I contact a doctor?

Contact your doctor as soon as you experience symptoms of lung cancer.

Many symptoms of lung cancer can have other causes. An accurate diagnosis is necessary to begin the right treatment as soon as possible.

You may also wish to contact your doctor about routine screenings. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends yearly lung cancer screenings if you:

  • smoke or have smoked 20 packs or more of cigarettes a year
  • smoke or you quit smoking in the past 15 years
  • are between 50—80 years old

How do doctors diagnose lung cancer?

If you have symptoms of lung cancer, your doctor may take a full medical history and perform a physical examination. Then they may arrange for tests, including:

Learn more about how doctors test for lung cancer.

Can lung cancer be cured if found early?

Treatment for lung cancer can be more successful if you find the cancer early.

Doctors will typically not use the word “cure.” Doctors rarely can guarantee that cancer will not return. However, they may say that you are in remission. This means that symptoms are either reduced or gone.

It is important to contact your doctor as soon as you experience symptoms of lung cancer. You are more likely to enter remission if you receive treatment in the early stage of lung cancer.

Learn more about cancer remission.

What are the treatments for lung cancer?

Treatments for lung cancer depend on the type of cancer and what stage it is in.

Examples of treatments for lung cancer include:

Your doctor may also recommend treatment for specific symptoms. These can include:

Can I prevent lung cancer?

It may not be possible to prevent lung cancer. However, certain steps can reduce your risk of developing lung cancer.

Steps you can take include:

  • not smoking, or quitting smoking
  • avoiding secondhand smoke
  • avoiding exposure to cancer-causing agents and radon
  • eating a healthy, balanced diet

You can also contact your doctor for advice.

Find out more about lung cancer prevention.

Learn more

Summary

You may not experience symptoms of lung cancer when the cancer is in the early stage. However, being aware of common symptoms will help you seek medical advice as soon as possible.

Common symptoms of lung cancer include breathing difficulties, chest pain, wheezing, and cough. Contact your doctor as soon as you experience respiratory symptoms. They will carry out tests to reach a diagnosis and advise you on any necessary treatments.

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Medical Reviewer: Adithya Cattamanchi, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 Aug 23
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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