Lung cancer often doesn’t cause symptoms in the early stages. Even when symptoms do appear, they don’t always include a cough.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 238,340 people in the United States will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2023. For many people, a lingering cough will be among the first symptoms.

A tumor in your lung can cause irritation or fluid buildup in your airways that triggers a cough reflex. It can also make you more prone to respiratory infections that may lead to a cough.

Lung cancer is divided into two main categories called non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) and small cell lung cancer (SCLC).

In a 2020 study, researchers found that cough was the most common symptom in people with both types of lung cancer. Cough was reported in 40.6% of people with SCLC and 33% with NSCLC at the time they were diagnosed.

Read on to learn more about the connection between lung cancer and coughing.

What does a lung cancer cough feel like?

Lung cancer often causes a lingering cough that gets worse in the absence of other flu-like symptoms like a runny nose or sore throat.

A lung cancer cough may:

  • interfere with your sleep
  • lead to coughing up blood
  • cause chest pain

The only way to know for sure if lung cancer is causing your cough is to visit your doctor for a proper diagnosis.

Learn more about lung cancer coughs.

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Lung cancer often doesn’t cause symptoms until the tumor grows large enough to cause problems. People usually don’t seek medical care until they experience multiple symptoms for many months.

Lung cancer symptoms are general and can mimic those of other conditions. Typical symptoms of lung cancer include:

Advanced stages of lung cancer more likely to cause symptoms

Lung cancer becomes more likely to cause symptoms as your cancer becomes more advanced.

In a 2019 study, researchers looked at the most reported symptoms in a group of 7,184 people diagnosed with lung cancer.

Chronic cough was the most commonly reported symptom, followed by coughing up blood, chest pain, and shortness of breath. Study participants were more likely to experience these symptoms based on how advanced their cancer was.

Smoking tobacco is by far the top risk factor for developing and dying from lung cancer. About 80% of lung cancer deaths are attributed to smoking.

SCLC is less common than NSCLC and generally has a poorer outlook. SCLC is very rare in people who’ve never smoked.

Other risk factors for lung cancer include:

It’s a good idea to see your doctor anytime you have a lingering cough or other potential symptoms of lung cancer, especially if you’re at increased risk of lung cancer.

People at high risk of lung cancer include:

  • people over the age of 65
  • current and former smokers
  • people with a family history of lung cancer

A cough is among the most common symptoms of lung cancer. But many people with lung cancer never develop a cough, and symptoms often don’t appear in the early stages.

Research suggests that you become more likely to develop a cough the further your cancer progresses. It’s a good idea to visit your doctor for a diagnosis any time you develop a lingering cough with no obvious cause.