Symptoms of Lung Cancer

The symptoms of lung cancer can be camouflaged as manifestations of another disease. Let's look at the warning signs that should get your attention.
Symptoms of Lung Cancer

Written by Josberth Johan Benitez Colmenares, 16 August, 2021

Last update: 16 August, 2021

According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the leading cause of death (from cancer) among men and women. Each year more deaths are reported than those of breast, prostate, and colon cancer combined. The prognosis is conditioned by how quickly it is detected, so being aware of the symptoms of lung cancer helps in the process.

Most of the initial signs are vague and develop with mild intensity. It’s only when the malignant cells have grown or spread to other places that the symptoms become stronger. Today we’ll have a look at the clinical manifestations of lung cancer and give you some advice on when to seek medical assistance.

Main symptoms of lung cancer

There are many symptoms of lung cancer. These develop differently between patients, with a frequency and intensity that varies in each case. Following the information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the initial symptoms that alert you to the presence of the disease are as follows.

Persistent cough

Symptoms of lung cancer include persistent cough
The characteristic cough of lung cancer usually appears progressively. Sometimes it may be the only obvious symptom.

Coughing is perhaps the most common symptom of lung cancer. Some say it’s a dry, tickling cough, although its most important indication is that it appears for no apparent reason and persists for weeks. What we mean here is that there’s no environmental trigger that justifies it and no improvements are perceived with conventional treatment.

Some researchers support the use of the Manchester scale to classify the intensity of the cough, but in practice, it’s a symptom that isn’t often taken into account. Evidence indicates that even after diagnosis it tends to fade into the background during treatment. The cough can sometimes be accompanied by blood, but not always.

Chest pain

Johns Hopkins Medicine reminds us that this symptom appears when the lung tumor creates pressure in the chest. It’s often made worse by coughing, laughing, sneezing, or breathing. Patients liken this sign to a choking sensation, one that prevents them from being able to breathe freely.

The more advanced the disease, the greater the pain in the chest. This can extend to the shoulder or arm and its manifestation is usually intermittent.

Difficulty breathing

Although studies in this regard indicate that this symptom is more frequent in the advanced stages of the disease, some patients may also develop it during the first months. Difficulty breathing occurs when doing some kind of physical effort, such as walking, running, playing sports, having sex, and so on.

Some patients confuse this sign with physical inactivity, being overweight, or aging. If it occurs in the company of the above and manifests itself over several weeks, you should go to see a doctor.

Recurrent infections

Many of the diagnoses of lung cancer are made because the patient develops repeated episodes of infection. Evidence indicates that pneumonia is the most common, although the inflammation of the pulmonary lymph nodes and bronchitis can also occur.

Various imaging tests are performed to detect these conditions, which may reflect lesions or nodules from the tumor. If you suffer from infections of this type frequently, it doesn’t mean that you have cancer, but it’s good to rule it out with a specialist if you also have the above symptoms.

Other common symptoms of lung cancer are weight loss for no apparent reason, weakness and fatigue, wheezing, and loss of appetite. All these symptoms tend to develop with greater intensity and they evolve more rapidly in smokers.

Uncommon symptoms of lung cancer

When cancer has spread to other parts of the body, symptoms are more general. The British Lung Foundation, highlights some of the clinical manifestations in these cases.

Back pain

Back pain occurs in cases of adrenal metastasis or in the spine. It can also develop due to the pressure of the tumor on the nerve roots on this side of the body, although, in this case, the sensation will be less intense. The characteristics of this symptom are the following:

  • It gets worse with physical activity, lying down, or standing for a long time.
  • It tends to get worse with sudden movements. Coughing, for example.
  • It can appear in the low, middle, or upper part of the back.
  • In some cases, it’s most acute at night.

Bone pain

Bone pain occurs when there have been bone metastases. It’s more common for the tumor to spread to the spine when it’s closer, but it can also spread to areas further away. According to Cancer Research UK, when cancer cells press on the spinal cord, you can experience these signs:

  • Weakness in the legs
  • The sensation of numbness in the lower back.
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control.

In turn, calcium levels in the blood increase, which can lead to confusion or dehydration. If it affects weaker bones, then they can fracture or break more easily.

Difficulty to swallow

If cancer spreads to lymph nodes in the neck, you may experience difficulty swallowing. Dysphagia can also occur, according to research, when nerve roots are compressed. This is relatively common in patients with advanced lung cancer. It can also be accompanied by speech disorders, as studies show.

Jaundice

Symptoms of lung cancer when there is metastasis
It’s true that jaundice is a common symptom of many diseases, but in the context of a person with lung cancer, it usually means the presence of liver damage.

Jaundice (a yellowing of the skin and mucous membranes) is a symptom that is associated with liver metastasis. This may be accompanied by pain in the right side of the abdomen, poor appetite, itchy skin, and nausea. General inflammation of the abdomen may also appear, better known as ascites.

Pain in the head

If cancer has spread to the brain, headaches may develop. This will be accompanied by others such as confusion, drowsiness, seizures, and weakness. Brain metastasis is usually one of the main complications associated with the growth of malignant cells in the lung.

In addition to all these, blood clots, swelling of the face and neck, memory loss, and snoring can appear.

When to seek medical assistance?

The symptoms of lung cancer can easily be confused with other types of diseases, especially during its early stages. However, you should be aware of how all these symptoms develop, especially if no underlying explanations have been found and they are still there after several weeks.

You should be more cautious if you’re part of the risk groups. If you’re a smoker, are over 50 years old, have been repeatedly exposed to certain toxic elements (asbestos, uranium, arsenic, nickel, and others) or have a family history of cancer, then go and see your doctor as soon as possible if you notice any of these symptoms.

It might interest you...
Living with Lung Cancer
Muy SaludRead it in Muy Salud
Living with Lung Cancer

Living with lung cancer begins with assimilating the disease. Find out which habits to include and which to stop during treatment.



  • Akinosoglou, K. S., Karkoulias, K., & Marangos, M. Infectious complications in patients with lung cancer. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. 2013; 17(1): 8-18.
  • Brady GC, Carding PN, Bhosle J, Roe JW. Contemporary management of voice and swallowing disorders in patients with advanced lung cancer. Curr Opin Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2015 Jun;23(3):191-6.
  • Brady GC, Roe JWG, O’ Brien M, Boaz A, Shaw C. An investigation of the prevalence of swallowing difficulties and impact on quality of life in patients with advanced lung cancer. Support Care Cancer. 2018 Feb;26(2):515-519.
  • Harle ASM, Blackhall FH, Molassiotis A, Yorke J, Dockry R, Holt KJ, Yuill D, Baker K, Smith JA. Cough in Patients With Lung Cancer: A Longitudinal Observational Study of Characterization and Clinical Associations. Chest. 2019 Jan;155(1):103-113.
  • Lou VW, Chen EJ, Jian H, Zhou Z, Zhu J, Li G, He Y. Respiratory Symptoms, Sleep, and Quality of Life in Patients With Advanced Lung Cancer. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2017 Feb;53(2):250-256.e1.
  • Molassiotis A, Ellis J, Wagland R, Williams ML, Bailey CD, Booton R, Blackhall F, Yorke J, Smith JA. The Manchester cough in lung cancer scale: the development and preliminary validation of a new assessment tool. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2013 Feb;45(2):179-90.