There are roughly 225,000 new cases of lung cancer every year in the United States. Early diagnosis and treatment play a large role in improving outcomes.

A recently developed nasal swab test could help identify the risk of lung cancer so people can proceed with diagnosis and treatment more quickly.

While it has some advantages, it may not be a necessary test for everyone.

Read on to learn more about the nasal swab lung cancer test, including how and when it’s used as well as its benefits and drawbacks.

Doctors usually diagnose lung cancer by testing tissue samples in a lab. Doctors get the tissues from your body by taking a biopsy. Biopsies are done using a specialized needle, a specialized tube (bronchoscope) down your throat, or surgery.

These methods are all invasive to some degree and can take some time to get results. If the results are negative for cancer, then you’ve undergone an invasive procedure that could have been avoided. And if the results are positive for cancer, then treatment was delayed while you waited for results.

The nasal swab lung cancer test was designed to help address these issues.

About 80 percent of lung cancer deaths are caused by smoking, including tobacco cigarettes, cigars, pipes, low tar cigarettes, and menthols, reports the American Cancer Society.

Smoking, either currently or in the past, is believed to cause genomic changes throughout your respiratory tract. This is called the “field of injury” theory. This theory was first described in a 2011 paper, and its principles still apply today.

These genomic changes can be measured to figure out your likelihood of having lung cancer. This means doctors can take swabs from within your nasal cavity, called your nasal epithelial, instead of performing a more invasive procedure.

The nasal swab lung cancer test can be easily performed in a doctor’s office. You will tilt your head back, and a doctor will insert a swab into your nose and swab your nasal epithelial. This might cause mild discomfort.

The swab will be sent to a lab for analysis. It may take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks to get results.

Results from a nasal swab will show your risk profile of lung cancer.

If your risk is low, your doctor could recommend continued monitoring at regular intervals with imaging tests such as chest X-rays or CT scans. If your risk is high, you could begin diagnosis and treatment immediately.

Because the vast majority of lung cancer deaths are a result of smoking, most people who are regularly screened for lung cancer today are current or former smokers.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends annual low dose CT scans to look for lung cancer in anyone between the ages of 50 and 80 with a 20 pack-year smoking history. The USPSTF is a volunteer advisory panel that’s independent from the U.S. government.

Of course, people who have never smoked can get lung cancer too. Other risk factors include exposure to:

This is not an exhaustive list. Family history of lung cancer or previous radiotherapy treatments can also increase your risk of lung cancer.

Everyone’s situation is different, so if you’re concerned about lung cancer, talk it over with a doctor.

If a low dose CT scan reveals nodules in your lungs, a nasal swab could help you and your doctor decide the best way to proceed while avoiding unnecessary delays in treatment or invasive procedures.

According to a 2021 study, the nasal swab test successfully classified cancerous nodules larger than 8 millimeters (mm) as not being low risk. Additionally, no noncancerous nodules smaller than 8 mm were classified as high risk.

This means the test is good at identifying high and low risk nodules, so you can either begin treatment right away or avoid unnecessary follow-ups.

The results are less clear for nodules identified as intermediate risk. Intermediate nodules will likely need additional testing to determine the next steps.

This test may help avoid unnecessary invasive procedures for people with noncancerous nodules.This is a new technology and may have limited availability.
This test may help avoid treatment delays for people with cancerous nodules.This test may or may not be covered by your insurance provider, depending on your risk level and your plan.
This test can be performed quickly and easily in an office without special machinery.If your results indicate an intermediate risk level, you will probably need further testing anyway.

What are the early symptoms of lung cancer?

Lung cancer often doesn’t cause any symptoms until it spreads to other parts of the body, although this isn’t true for everyone. If you do have lung cancer, detecting it early can lead to more effective treatment.

If you’re experiencing the symptoms below, it might indicate a number of conditions other than cancer. It’s best to talk with a doctor to find out for sure.

Common symptoms of lung cancer include:

What is the most common first step in diagnosing lung cancer?

If a doctor suspects you may have lung cancer based on your symptoms, the next step is often to perform an imaging test. These tests let doctors look inside your body.

Some of the imaging tests used to look for lung cancer include:

What other tests are used to diagnose lung cancer?

There are many tests that can help diagnose lung cancer. These tests involve laboratory analysis of samples of your lung cells. The type of test a doctor chooses will depend on your unique circumstances.

Some of the tests used to diagnose lung cancer include:

Can lung cancer be detected in sputum?

Sputum is mucus from your lungs that can sometimes be coughed out. Sputum samples can be used to detect lung cancer, but it’s better at detecting some types than others. If your sputum samples do not show signs of lung cancer, you might still need additional testing.

Can the nasal swab test be used to determine how effective treatment is?

This isn’t something the nasal swab test is currently used for, but it might be one possible use in the future if experts can demonstrate it’s an effective tool to monitor treatment.

While anyone can get lung cancer, it overwhelmingly affects current and former smokers. If you’re at high risk of lung cancer, talk with a doctor about regular screenings.

If a regular lung cancer screening finds nodules in your lungs, a nasal swab test might be able to help determine the best next steps in your treatment.