Lung Cancer Symptoms: What You Should Know

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on February 05, 2024
5 min read

Most of the time, lung cancer has no symptoms in its early stages. Your lungs don't have many nerve endings, so a tumor can start to grow there without causing pain. You may not notice the signs until your cancer has begun to spread.

When signs of the disease start to appear, they can include:

  • Chronic, hacking, raspy coughing, sometimes with mucus that has blood in it
  • Changes in a cough that you've had for a long time
  • Respiratory infections that keep coming back, including bronchitis or pneumonia
  • Shortness of breath that gets worse
  • Wheezing
  • Lasting chest pain
  • Hoarseness
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Shoulder pain

These problems usually happen because of blocked breathing passages or because the cancer has spread farther into the lung, nearby areas, or other parts of the body.

Stage I lung cancer symptoms

This early stage of lung cancer often doesn't cause any symptoms. Stage I lung cancer is more likely to be caught because you had a screening, not because you noticed anything wrong. If you do have symptoms, they may include:

  • Coughing, especially a new cough, one that has become constant, or one that's bringing up blood or mucus 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Frequent infections such as bronchitis or pneumonia

Stage IV lung cancer symptoms

When your cancer reaches this stage, it has begun to spread to more spots in your lungs, the fluid around your lungs, or other places in your body. In addition to respiratory symptoms such as coughing and wheezing, you may have:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Headaches, numbness, or seizures if it has spread to your brain

Less common lung cancer symptoms

Some symptoms affect parts of your body that don't seem related to to your lungs. Those signs include:

  • Changes to your fingers, known as "clubbing." Your nails curve more than usual, and your skin and nails look shiny. The ends of your fingers appear bigger.
  • Too much calcium in your blood (hypercalcemia), which can cause stomach upset, thirst, frequent urination, and confusion among other symptoms.
  • Horner syndrome, which can cause a drooping eyelid, decreased pupil size, and reduced sweating -- all on one side of your face.
  • Puffy face, neck, or arms, caused by a tumor restricting blood flow.

Lung cancer symptoms on the skin

In addition to sweating issues caused by Horner syndrome, lung cancer can cause other issues with your skin. They include:

  • Jaundice, which causes your skin and the whites of your eyes to turn yellow
  • Bruising easily, which happens when the cancer interferes with your body's adrenal glands

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among all genders. Lung cancer rates are falling across the board, but the decline hasn't been as big for younger women. Experts aren't sure why this is happening. Genetic mutations may play a role. Lung cancer has traditionally been associated with older men who have a history of smoking, so doctors may not suspect lung cancer at first when a nonsmoking young woman comes in with general symptoms such as cough or frequent respiratory infections.

There are two main types of lung cancer: small-cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC). NSCLC is more common and makes up about 85% of all lung cancer cases. Within NSCLC, there are three subtypes:

  • Adenocarcinoma, which often forms in the outer layers of your lungs. More women get this type, and experts are seeing more of it among women who have never smoked.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma, which usually forms in the center of your lung, next to an air tube (bronchus).
  • Large cell carcinoma, which can form anywhere and usually grows faster than the other two types.

There are two types of SCLC, mainly based on the type of cells involved and how they look under a microscope: small-cell carcinoma and mixed small-cell/large-cell cancer. It's sometimes called combined small-cell lung cancer. SCLC is strongly linked to cigarette smoking.

Both SCLC and NSCLC have many symptoms in common: cough, chest pain, wheezing, and hoarseness, for instance.

Non-small-cell lung cancer symptoms

NSCLC is more likely than SCLC to cause Horner syndrome, the collection of symptoms that affects your pupil, eyelid, and sweating on one side of your face.

 Small-cell lung cancer symptoms

This type tends to grow and spread more quickly to other parts of your body. That means it's more likely to produce symptoms, such as:

  • Bone pain
  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Paralysis

SCLC is more likely than NSCLC to cause hypercalcemia and interfere with your adrenal glands.

If you have any of these symptoms of lung disease, especially an ongoing cough, blood-streaked mucus, wheezing, hoarseness, or a lung infection that keeps coming back, see your doctor. You’ll get a thorough checkup, and you may also get X-rays or other tests.

Go immediately to the emergency room if you have any of the following:

In its early stages, lung cancer often has no symptoms. If you're coughing up mucus (especially if it's streaked with blood), have wheezing, hoarseness, chest pain, or frequent cases of bronchitis or pneumonia, these can be signs of lung cancer. Many of the symptoms of SCLS and NSCLC are the same. Those symptoms can also be signs of other illnesses. It's important to talk to your doctor if you have concerns.

How long can you have lung cancer without knowing?

Lung cancer can grow in your body for years before you start to notice symptoms.

Is cancer in the lungs curable?

Experts generally don't use the word "cured" when it comes to lung cancer. They're more likely to say you're in "remission" or that your body shows "no evidence of disease" (NED). At 5 years or more of remission or NED, your doctor might consider you cured. The earlier your cancer is found and you begin treatment, the better your outcome is likely to be. That's why experts have begun to encourage lung cancer screening for certain people at higher risk. You may want to look into the benefits of screening if you meet these requirements:

  • You're between the ages of 50 and 80
  • You smoke, or you quit within the last 15 years
  • You have a smoking history of 20 pack years. That's the number of packs per day multiplied by the number of years you smoked.

How long can you live with lung cancer?

How long you'll live depends on many factors, including:

  • What type of cancer you have
  • How far it's spread
  • How well you respond to treatment
  • Your overall health

The survival rates for lung cancer have been increasing with the development of new treatments.