Lung cancer and COVID-19 are two conditions that affect the lungs and have similar symptoms, like cough and shortness of breath. Further, the effects of both conditions can have a severe impact on your ability to breathe effectively.

While research is still new and ongoing, scientists are now beginning to explore how lung cancer and COVID-19 may interact. Keep reading to learn more.

Lung cancer is when cancer starts in the lungs. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), it’s the second most common cancer in both men and women.

Lung cancer is a chronic, or long-lasting, condition. Treatment goals can vary by the type and extent of the cancer, but typically focus on controlling its growth and spread. Where possible, treatment also seeks to eliminate the cancer.

COVID-19 is the illness caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. This virus is currently the cause of a pandemic that has sickened and killed millions of people worldwide.

COVID-19 is generally an acute condition. This means that symptoms come on quickly and last a short time. While most people who become sick with COVID-19 have a mild or moderate illness, it can cause serious or critical illness in others.

However, some people who have had COVID-19 experience lingering symptoms, such as fatigue and shortness of breath. These symptoms can last weeks or months after you first contract the virus. This is called long COVID.

Lung cancer and COVID-19 share many symptoms. However, each condition also has unique symptoms as well.

The table below can help give you an idea of which symptoms are common and which are unique.

Lung cancerCOVID-19
Shortness of breath
Chest pain✓ (severe cases)
Coughing up blood
Reduced appetite
Unintentional weight loss
Recurrent or persistent lung infections
Fever, with or without chills
Muscle pain
Runny or stuffy nose
Sore throat
Loss of smell and taste
Nausea or vomiting

People with lung cancer are more at risk of COVID-19. Much of the time, these individuals already have reduced lung function due to factors like:

  • a history of smoking
  • damage from the cancer itself
  • the effects of a previous lung cancer surgery
  • other existing heart or lung conditions

Because lung function can already be lower in people with lung cancer, contracting a respiratory infection like COVID-19 can place additional stress on the lungs. This can, in turn, raise the risk of serious complications.

Also, many people with cancer are at an increased risk of contracting infections in the first place. This can be due to the cancer itself or to the treatments you’re receiving for your cancer.

For example, mucus in your lungs helps to trap germs. Then, your body expels these germs by coughing. Having a tumor in your lung may affect mucus drainage and lead to more infections.

Some cancer treatments can also weaken the immune system, making you more prone to infections. The ACS says that overall, chemotherapy is the most common cause of a weakened immune system in people getting cancer treatment.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), both people with cancer and people with weakened immune systems are at an increased risk of serious illness due to COVID-19.

Since people with lung cancer are at an increased risk of COVID-19, you may be wondering about the outlook and potential complications with both conditions.

Generally speaking, the types of complications that people with lung cancer may experience due to COVID-19 are similar to those in the general population. These can include:

COVID-19 can potentially have long-term complications as well. It can take time to recover from damage to the lungs and other organs, particularly for people with cancer. It’s also possible to develop long COVID.

People with lung cancer have a higher risk of death from COVID-19. A 2021 research review found mortality rates ranging from 18 to 47 percent in people with COVID-19 and lung cancer.

A 2021 review included 13 studies of COVID-19 and lung cancer. It found that, in regions outside of China, pooled COVID-19 mortality was significantly higher in people with lung cancer (42 percent) than in people with other cancers (24 percent).

In addition to supportive care and symptom relief, several treatments authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are available to help treat COVID-19 in people at serious risk of becoming very ill.

These treatments typically fall into two categories: antivirals and monoclonal antibodies. Antivirals prevent the virus from multiplying in your body. Examples include:

  • nirmatrelvir with ritonavir (Paxlovid)
  • remdesivir (Veklury)
  • molnupiravir (Lagevrio)

Monoclonal antibodies help your immune system fight the virus. Bebtelovimab is an example of a monoclonal antibody treatment that’s effective against current viral variants.

If you become more seriously ill due to COVID-19, other treatments can help you get enough oxygen. Options include oxygen supplementation or ventilation.

A 2021 study looked at the treatment of 28 people with lung cancer and COVID-19. It found that:

Does COVID-19 interfere with my lung cancer treatment?

Cancer treatments can be hard on your body. As such, if you have lung cancer and contract COVID-19, you may need to defer some types of cancer treatment until you recover.

Doctors will make these types of treatment decisions on an individual basis. Your doctor will weigh the benefits and risks of continuing or deferring your cancer treatment while you have COVID-19. Some factors they’ll consider include:

  • the type and stage of your cancer
  • the specific kind of treatment being used or considered
  • the risk of your cancer progressing
  • your level of lung function
  • your age and overall health

If you have lung cancer, the best way to protect yourself against COVID-19 is to get vaccinated. The CDC prefers you get mRNA vaccines, like those made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, over the Johnson & Johnson adenoviral vector vaccine.

Vaccination can help lower your risk of becoming sick with COVID-19. Most importantly, it can also lower your risk of serious illness or death, should you become ill.

The CDC currently recommends that everyone ages 5 and older get vaccinated against COVID-19.

In addition to the CDC, the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommend that people with cancer get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The table below shows the current COVID-19 vaccine recommendations for adults.

Primary seriesFirst boosterSecond booster
Pfizer-BioNTech2 doses given 3–8 weeks apartmRNA booster at least 5 months after primary seriesAges 50 and older: mRNA booster at least 4 months after first booster
Moderna2 doses given 4–8 weeks apartmRNA booster at least 5 months after primary seriesAges 50 and older: mRNA booster at least 4 months after first booster
Johnson & Johnson1 dosemRNA booster at least 2 months after primary seriesAges 50 and older: mRNA booster at least 4 months after first booster

It’s important to note that if you have a weakened immune system, the vaccine recommendations are a little different. The table below shows the current COVID-19 vaccine recommendations for immunocompromised adults.

Primary seriesPrimary series: Extra doseFirst boosterSecond booster
Pfizer-BioNTech2 doses given 3 weeks apartextra dose given 4 weeks after second dosemRNA booster at least 3 months after extra dosemRNA booster at least 4 months after first booster
Moderna2 doses given 4 weeks apartextra dose given 4 weeks after second dosemRNA booster at least 3 months after extra dosemRNA booster at least 4 months after first booster
Johnson & Johnson1 doseextra mRNA dose given 4 weeks after initial dosemRNA booster at least 2 months after extra dosemRNA booster at least 4 months after first booster

Other ways to protect yourself

You can also do several other things to protect yourself from COVID-19, in addition to receiving your vaccine. These include:

  • asking other members of your household and your caregivers to stay up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations
  • wearing a mask when you’re out in public
  • avoiding areas that are very crowded or poorly ventilated
  • maintaining physical distancing while you’re out in public
  • washing your hands frequently with soap and water

It’s natural to have more questions about lung cancer and COVID-19. Below, we’ll aim to answer some of them.

Can COVID-19 cause lung cancer?

In a 2020 study, researchers wondered if extensive lung damage and inflammation from COVID-19 may contribute to the development of lung cancer. However, it’s still unclear what effect, if any, COVID-19 has on lung cancer risk.

Research is ongoing. More time is needed before we can see meaningful results.

Can COVID-19 be mistaken for lung cancer?

COVID-19 and lung cancer do have some overlap in symptoms. Additionally, imaging of the lungs can show a “ground glass” appearance in the lungs for both conditions.

However, experts also have some effective strategies to tell the difference between the two. Examples include a thorough medical history, laboratory tests, and pathology results (if necessary).

Does immunotherapy for cancer help protect me against COVID-19?

Immunotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that helps your immune system to fight cancer. While it’s possible that this treatment may protect against COVID-19, much more research is necessary.

A 2021 study found that, compared with people having chemotherapy, those receiving immunotherapy with immune checkpoint inhibitors were less likely to test positive for COVID-19.

A 2022 study included 2,215 people with cancer, including lung cancer. Receiving immunotherapy 4 weeks before a COVID-19 diagnosis was associated with a lower risk of death.

I’m in remission from lung cancer. Should I still worry about increased risk of COVID-19?

If you’ve had lung cancer and are currently in remission, it’s still important to take steps to protect yourself from COVID-19. Some research indicates that having a history of cancer may increase your risk of COVID-19.

A 2021 study compared COVID-19 outcomes between people who had received a cancer diagnosis and those who had not. It found that having had a cancer diagnosis was associated with an increased risk of hospitalization or death.

Is it safe to get the COVID-19 vaccine if I have lung cancer?

Yes, the COVID-19 vaccines are safe for people with lung cancer. The most common side effects of vaccination are mild, only last a few days, and may include:

People with lung cancer are at a higher risk of serious illness and death due to COVID-19. Some factors that can contribute to this include existing lung damage and the effects of cancer and its treatment.

The best way to prevent COVID-19 is to stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines. This can help prevent you from becoming severely ill, should you contract the virus.

Your care team is here to help you during this time. Be sure to raise any questions or concerns that you may have about COVID-19, COVID-19 vaccines, or how COVID-19 affects your cancer treatment.