A person living with lung cancer will have either small cell or non-small cell lung cancer. Non-small cell lung cancer accounts for around 80 to 85 percent of all lung cancer cases and spreads less rapidly than small cell lung cancer

Symptoms of lung cancer vary depending on whether the disease is in its early or late stages.

In early-stage (stage 1 and stage 2) non-small cell lung cancer, the cancerous tumor is typically smaller than 3 inches and hasn’t spread to your lymph nodes. Minor symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath, may appear during this time. You may not notice any symptoms at all.

Once the tumor grows larger than 3 inches or spreads to other parts of your body, the disease is usually considered late-stage (stage 3 and stage 4). During these stages, you’re more likely to have noticeable symptoms.

It’s important to note that symptoms of lung cancer are similar to symptoms of other lung diseases. Keep reading to learn what these symptoms are. If you experience any of them, you should see your doctor for a medical evaluation.

Coughing allows your body to expel irritants from your throat or airway by pushing a burst of air out of your lungs. An intense, persistent, or consistently worsening cough can indicate lung cancer.

It’s a common symptom of many other conditions as well. See your doctor right away if you cough up blood or bloody mucus and phlegm.

Dyspnea can feel like a tightness in the chest or an inability to take a big breath. This can greatly reduce a person’s physical activity and impact their quality of life.

Large tumors or the spread of lung cancer can cause blockages in your major airways as well as fluid buildup around your lungs. This buildup is called a pleural effusion.

Pleural effusion can lead to shortness of breath and chest pain, common symptoms of lung cancer. If any shortness of breath you’re experiencing is new or constant or interferes with your daily life, see your doctor.

Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling that can occur when you breathe in or out. It occurs when air passages constrict, affecting air flow. Although this is a common symptom of asthma, wheezing may be the result of a lung tumor.

Contact your doctor if your wheezing is new, audible, or associated with other symptoms like shortness of breath.

Your vocal cords produce sound by opening and closing, causing vibrations. When lung cancer involves the laryngeal nerve, it can affect your vocal cords and may cause a change or hoarseness in your voice.

Hoarseness is a common symptom of many conditions, most commonly laryngitis. If your hoarseness lasts for 2 or more weeks, see your doctor.

Fatigue is a constant worn-down feeling. With lung cancer, your body works overtime to try to fight the attack of cancer. This can drain your energy, making you feel tired and lethargic.

Fatigue may become more pronounced as lung cancer advances. Up to 90 percent of people undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer will experience fatigue.

If fatigue begins to interfere with your life, contact your doctor.

When you’re sick, your body temperature may rise. If it climbs above 100.4°F (38°C), then you may have a fever.

Fever is a common symptom in people with cancer and may be related to infections in the lung or your body trying to fight the cancer. See your doctor if a fever gets too high or doesn’t go away in a few days.

When tiny blood vessels (capillaries) in your body are damaged or undergo pressure, they leak fluid. Your kidney responds by retaining water and salt to compensate for the loss. This results in swelling or edema.

This excess fluid causes the capillaries to leak even more fluid. Your lymph nodes work to clear excess fluid from your body. Cancer can block or damage your lymph nodes, preventing them from doing their job.

This can result in swelling of your neck, face, arms, and even throughout your legs and feet.

Contact your doctor if you’re concerned about any swelling you may be experiencing.

Other symptoms of lung cancer include:

Other symptoms may occur once the cancer has spread to different parts of your body or metastasized. These include:

When it spreads, lung cancer can sometimes literally strike a nerve. This can cause a group of symptoms to develop. Together, the symptoms are referred to as a syndrome.

Horner’s syndrome

Horner’s syndrome occurs when a tumor forms in the upper part of your lung. This tumor may then damage a nerve from your upper chest to your neck and can cause severe neck or shoulder pain.

Other symptoms of this syndrome may affect one side of your face. These include:

  • ptosis, a drooping or weakness of one eyelid
  • smaller pupil size in one eye
  • anhidrosis, reduced or absent sweating on one side of your face

Superior vena cava syndrome

Superior vena cava syndrome occurs when the vein that brings blood back to your heart becomes blocked. It can result from a cancerous tumor putting pressure on the vein or blocking it entirely, which leads to symptoms such as:

  • coughing
  • dyspnea
  • swelling and discoloration in your neck or face
  • difficulty swallowing

Paraneoplastic syndrome

Some lung cancers can cause paraneoplastic syndrome. This is a rare group of symptoms that occur when cancer cells or your body’s immunity cells produce hormones or other substances that affect other organs or tissue.

These symptoms are sometimes the first evidence of cancer. However, they often confuse or delay a lung cancer diagnosis because they occur outside of your lungs. Symptoms can affect many parts of your body, including the:

Smoking cigarettes is the leading cause of lung cancer. If you smoke, you are 15 to 30 times more likely to develop lung cancer than someone who doesn’t.

Having someone in your family with lung cancer significantly increases your risk, even if you aren’t a smoker. The risk is highest if your parent or sibling has had the disease.

Your risk also increases with exposure to certain things in your environment, such as:

Your doctor may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose lung cancer:

  • Biopsy. Your doctor takes a small sample of tissue from your lungs to test for cancerous cells.
  • Imaging tests. X-rays or CT scans check for lesions in your lungs.
  • Sputum cytology. Your doctor examines a sample of sputum (material that you cough up) under a microscope.
  • Bronchoscopy. An instrument with a camera and light lets your doctor examine the inside of your lungs for abnormalities and collect cells for microscopic examination.

If you’re at high risk of developing lung cancer, ask your doctor if a screening CT scan is warranted. An early diagnosis improves the prognosis for people who smoke or have smoked.

Learn more about lung cancer diagnosis.

Some lung diseases have symptoms that overlap significantly with those of lung cancer, such as:

Ask your doctor about these conditions if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • wheezing
  • persistent or chronic cough
  • bloody cough
  • fever
  • pneumonia
  • persistent sweating

Lung cancer has the highest mortality rate of all cancers in the United States. If you’re diagnosed and treated in the early stages of the disease, you have a chance of successful treatment.

If you have any symptoms of lung cancer, see your doctor right away to ensure early diagnosis. If you smoke, consider quitting. This is the most important risk-reducing step you can take.