Lung cancer doesn’t always produce noticeable symptoms in the early stages, and many people aren’t diagnosed until the disease has advanced. However, there are a few early signs and symptoms that do occur in some people.

Read on to learn about early lung cancer signs and symptoms, and how early screening may help people at high risk for the disease.

Early signs and symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • a cough that won’t quit or changes
  • breathing changes or wheezing
  • body pain
  • raspy, hoarse voice
  • unexplained weight loss

1. A cough that won’t quit or changes

Be on alert for a new cough that lingers. A cough associated with a cold or respiratory infection will go away in a week or so, but a persistent cough that lingers can be a symptom of lung cancer.

Also pay attention to any changes in a chronic cough, particularly if you smoke.

Make a doctor’s appointment right away if your cough:

  • lingers
  • starts happening more often
  • has gotten deeper
  • sounds hoarse
  • produces blood
  • produces a large amount of mucus

A doctor will listen to your lungs and may order an X-ray or other tests.

2. Breathing changes or wheezing

Shortness of breath or becoming easily winded are also possible symptoms of lung cancer. Changes in breathing can occur if lung cancer blocks or narrows an airway, or if fluid from a lung tumor builds up in the chest.

Make note of when you feel winded or short of breath. If you find it difficult to breathe after climbing stairs or performing tasks you once found easy, don’t ignore it.

When your airways become constricted, blocked, or inflamed, your lungs may produce a wheezing or whistling sound when you breathe. This can have multiple causes, some of which are benign and easily treatable.

However, wheezing can also be a symptom of lung cancer, so it’s a good idea to bring it to your doctor’s attention. It’s best not to assume that wheezing is caused by asthma or allergies. Have your doctor confirm the cause.

3. Body pain

Lung cancer may produce pain in the chest, shoulders, or back. This can happen when you cough or throughout the day.

Tell your doctor if you notice any type of chest pain and whether it’s:

  • sharp
  • dull
  • constant
  • intermittent

You should also note whether it’s limited to a specific area or occurring throughout your chest.

When lung cancer causes chest pain, the discomfort may result from enlarged lymph nodes or metastasis to the chest wall, the lining around the lungs (called pleura), or the ribs.

Lung cancer that has spread to your bones may produce pain in your back or in other areas of your body. Bone pain is often worse at night and increases with movement.

Headaches can sometimes be a sign that lung cancer has metastasized (spread) to the brain. However, not all headaches are associated with brain metastases.

4. Raspy, hoarse voice

If you hear a significant change in your voice, or if someone else points out that your voice sounds deeper, hoarse, or raspier, it’s a good idea to reach out to your doctor.

A simple cold can cause hoarseness, but this symptom may point to something more serious when it persists.

Hoarseness related to lung cancer can occur when the tumor affects the nerve that controls the larynx, or voice box.

5. Unexplained weight loss

An unexplained weight loss of 10 pounds or more can be caused by many types of cancer, including lung cancer.

When cancer is present, this drop in weight can result from cancer cells using energy. It could also result from changes in the way your body uses energy from food.

It’s important not to ignore a change in your weight if you haven’t been trying to shed pounds. It may be a clue to a change in your health.

Less common signs and symptoms

Less common signs and symptoms of lung cancer include:

Are symptoms of lung cancer different for men or women?

The symptoms of lung cancer are the same in both men and women.

However, squamous cell lung cancer is found more often in men. The reason it occurs more in men is because squamous cell lung cancer primarily develops in smokers, and men are statistically more likely to smoke than women.

Squamous cell lung cancer tumors form directly in the airways. The tumors in lung adenocarcinoma, the type of lung cancer more commonly found in women, first develop on the outer edges of the lungs.

Often, this difference means that squamous cell lung cancer causes severe symptoms to occur earlier in the disease progression than lung adenocarcinoma does. So, while men and women will have the same symptoms of lung cancers, it’s not uncommon for men to experience significant symptoms sooner.

NOTE: We use “women” and “men” here to reflect the terms that have been historically used to gender people. But your gender identity may not align with how your body responds to lung cancer. Talk with a doctor if you have concerns about any symptoms you may be experiencing.

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Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) are the two main types of lung cancer. SCLC is less common than NSCLC but more aggressive.

SCLC usually has no early symptoms, but when it spreads within the lung or to other parts of your body, you may experience the following:

  • bloody mucus
  • shortness of breath or wheezing
  • chest pain
  • persistent cough
  • loss of appetite
  • facial swelling

You should contact your doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms.

In advanced stages of lung cancer, the cancer usually metastasizes to both lungs and other organs, such as the bones or brain.

The symptoms of advanced lung cancer may include the following:

  • fatigue
  • pain
  • breathing difficulties
  • persistent coughing
  • loss of appetite

If lung cancer has spread to other organs, you may have symptoms such as fractures if it’s spread to your bones or vision issues if it’s spread to your brain.

Lung cancer may cause groups of certain symptoms that are known as syndromes. Some of the most common are Horner’s syndrome, superior vena cava syndrome, and paraneoplastic syndrome.

Horner’s syndrome

Tumors in the upper part of the lungs, which are referred to as Pancoast tumors, may cause symptoms by affecting the nerves in your face and eyes. These symptoms are collectively known as Horner’s syndrome.

The symptoms of Horner’s syndrome may include:

  • a drooping or weakened upper eyelid
  • a smaller pupil in that eye
  • little or no sweating on that side of your face
  • extreme shoulder pain

Superior vena cava syndrome

Tumors in your upper right lung may put pressure on your superior vena cava, a large vein that carries blood from your head and arms to your heart. The pressure may cause blood to back up in your veins.

The symptoms of superior vena cava syndrome may include:

  • swelling in your face, neck, arms, and upper chest, sometimes making your skin turn bluish-red
  • headaches
  • dizziness or loss of consciousness

It’s very important to talk with a doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms, since superior vena cava syndrome can be life threatening.

Paraneoplastic syndromes

Some lung cancers produce hormones that travel through your bloodstream to distant organs and tissues, causing problems known as paraneoplastic syndromes.

These syndromes are more common with SCLC. They may be the first symptoms of lung cancer.

The following are some common paraneoplastic syndromes:

  • Syndrome of inappropriate antidiuretic hormone (SIADH). SIADH occurs if lung cancer produces the hormone ADH, which causes your kidneys to hold water, resulting in lower blood salt levels. The symptoms may include fatigue, muscle weakness, and nausea.
  • Cushing’s syndrome. If lung cancer releases the hormone ACTH, your adrenal glands will produce high levels of cortisol, which is referred to as Cushing’s syndrome. This may lead to symptoms including weight gain, drowsiness, and high blood pressure.
  • Lamber-Eaton myasthenic syndrome (LAMS). LAMS may occur if lung cancer causes your immune system to attack areas of your nervous system. The muscles around your hips may be weakened, making it difficult to stand from a seated position.
  • Humoral hypercalcemia of malignancy (HHM). Any kind of tumor can cause this oversecretion of parathyroid hormone-related peptide (PTHrP). Squamous carcinomas are most commonly the cause.

The end-stage of lung cancer doesn’t always look the same. A patient in the final stage might have all or just a few of the symptoms below. Common end-stage symptoms include:

  • pain
  • confusion
  • weakness
  • restlessness
  • loss of appetite
  • cough
  • trouble concentrating or focusing
  • fast or uneven breathing
  • shortness of breath
  • a rattle in the chest in between breaths
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • loss of consciousness

If lung cancer is detected at an early stage, when there typically are no symptoms, it’s more likely to be successfully treated.

Low-dose computer tomography (LDCT) scans have been found to save more lives than chest X-rays when they’re used to screen people with a higher risk of lung cancer.

LDCT scans, which use low amounts of radiation, help identify atypical areas in the lungs that could indicate cancer.

The American Cancer Society’s lung cancer screening guidelines recommend annual LDCT scans for higher-risk people between the ages of 55 and 74 who meet each of the following conditions:

  • You currently smoke or have smoked within the past 15 years.
  • You have a 30-pack-a-year or more smoking history (the number of years you smoked multiplied by the packs of cigarettes smoked each day).
  • You receive counseling to help quit if you’re a current smoker.
  • A healthcare professional explained to you the benefits and harms of LDCT scans.
  • You have access to a facility that performs lung cancer screening.

The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommends annual screening for adults ages 50 to 80 who have smoked 20 years or more, and who currently smoke or have quit smoking in the past 15 years.

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms associated with lung cancer or meet the criteria that apply to people at high risk, talk with your doctor about whether LDCT scans are appropriate for you.

About 75 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer have already reached stage 3 or 4 of the disease. Receiving an LDCT screening could be a very beneficial measure.

Lung cancer is serious, but new, more effective treatments are being researched every day.

Talking with your doctor about your risks and any symptoms will give you the best outlook.