Early warning signs of lung cancer vector

Top 10 Early Warning Signs of Lung Cancer (2024)

by | Updated: May 16, 2024

Lung cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, accounting for more than 150,000 deaths each year. It’s a disease that occurs in approximately 1 in 17 adults.

Early detection is crucial for improving survival rates, yet the initial symptoms are often subtle and easily overlooked.

This article explores the early signs of lung cancer, highlighting the symptoms that individuals should not ignore and discussing the importance of early diagnostic screenings.

What is Lung Cancer?

Lung cancer is a type of cancer that begins as abnormal cell growth in the tissues of the lungs. These malignant cells can disrupt normal lung function and spread to other parts of the body. Smoking is a major risk factor, although non-smokers can also develop the disease.

Lung cancer early signs illustration vector

Early Signs of Lung Cancer

  1. Persistent cough
  2. Coughing up blood
  3. Night sweats
  4. Chest pain
  5. Hoarseness
  6. Loss of appetite
  7. Unexplained weight loss
  8. Shortness of breath
  9. Chronic fatigue
  10. Recurrent lung infections

Watch this video or keep reading to learn more about the early warning signs and symptoms of lung cancer.

Persistent Cough

One of the most common early warning signs of lung cancer is a cough that does not go away. In general, there are several different causes of coughing. However, if the cough persists and just won’t go away, it could be cause for concern. In general, there are several different causes of coughing.

Studies have shown that a chronic cough is present in the majority of people with lung cancer. However, this is not always an indication of lung cancer, which is why you should see a doctor for further testing.

In addition, if the cough is accompanied by other symptoms on this list, it’s even more important to seek medical attention.

Coughing up Blood

Hemoptysis may occur in some cases of lung cancer, which is a term used to describe coughing up blood. This generally happens when there is bleeding in the lungs or airways.

For example, if there’s a tumor in your lungs that continues to expand, it may eventually rupture a blood vessel, leading to bleeding.

While this sign can be alarming, it’s important to remember that it’s not always indicative of lung cancer. Hemoptysis may sometimes be caused by other conditions such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, lung infections, or a traumatic injury.

You might even be coughing up blood because acid reflux has gradually eroded your lining, leading to this unwanted symptom. However, coughing up blood is a serious finding and should be investigated further, regardless of the cause.

Night Sweats

Do you often wake up drenched in sweat in the middle of the night? If so, it could be a sign of lung cancer, as this symptom is often associated with multiple types of cancer.

Night sweats generally are defined as severe hot flashes that occur during sleep. When your body tries to fight cancer, significant changes in hormone levels can trigger excessive sweating.

While it is not unusual for someone to sweat if the room is a bit hot, there is a difference between that and sweating through your sheets at night. Therefore, if you regularly experience night sweats, you must see a doctor for further evaluation.

Chest Pain

Chest pain is another one of the more common warning signs of lung cancer. This symptom is especially worrisome if accompanied by dyspnea and shortness of breath.

Studies have shown that approximately 40 percent of patients with lung cancer have chest pain at the time of diagnosis. However, not all types of lung cancer are associated with chest pain.

But if a tumor is present in the lungs, as it grows and expands, it can compress nearby structures, leading to chest pain and difficulty breathing. Additionally, if the tumor spreads to the bones or other organs, it can also cause pain in those areas.

Of course, chest pain is a symptom associated with many other conditions, such as heart disease, stress, and anxiety. However, if you experience this symptom regularly, you must see a doctor for further testing.


If you’ve noticed that your voice has become hoarse or raspy, it could be an early warning sign of lung cancer. Studies have shown that patients with small cell lung cancer often present with hoarseness.

In general, hoarseness develops when the vocal cords do not vibrate as they should, creating an unusually breathy sound. Lung cancer is most likely not the cause of this finding.

However, in rare cases, it may be a sign of a tumor pressing on the vocal cords in rare cases.

Therefore, if your voice has changed and you cannot attribute it to a cold or other respiratory infection, it’s important to seek medical help to determine the underlying cause.

Loss of Appetite

Cancer cells can release substances that alter how your body processes food, leading to a loss of appetite. This explains why weight loss is a common symptom of lung cancer.

A study found that approximately two-thirds of patients with lung cancer eventually develop a loss of appetite. There are some situations where it may show up early in the course of the disease and others where it may not appear until the later stages.

In any case, the sooner you notice this symptom, the better. A loss of appetite can quickly lead to weight loss and malnutrition, which can negatively impact your health.

Unexplained Weight Loss

If patients with lung cancer have a loss of appetite, it only makes sense that they may start to lose weight as well. Unintentional weight loss is a hallmark sign of multiple types of cancer, including lung cancer.

It has been estimated that patients with advanced lung cancer may suffer severe weight loss in as many as 70 percent of cases.

This finding is common in patients with cancer because cancer cells generally divide at a rapid pace. This means that they have a high metabolic rate, causing them to absorb essential nutrients from the body.

This leaves fewer nutrients available for the rest of the body, leading to weight loss. If you’ve recently lost a significant amount of weight without changing your diet or exercise habits, it’s important to see a doctor.

Shortness of Breath

As previously mentioned, dyspnea and shortness of breath are two of the most common symptoms of lung cancer. Studies found that more than 70 percent of patients with lung cancer eventually develop breathing difficulties.

This can occur when a tumor grows and causes an obstruction in the airways of the lungs. It can always result in inflammation, leading to increased feelings of breathlessness.

In addition, lung cancer can cause fluid to accumulate in the space between the lungs and chest wall. This is known as a pleural effusion and can cause difficulty breathing.

If you’ve never had trouble breathing but notice that you’re struggling to catch your breath, it’s important to see a doctor. This is especially true if the symptoms are accompanied by other signs of lung cancer, such as a chronic cough or chest pain.

Chronic Fatigue

Chronic fatigue is another hallmark sign of multiple types of cancer, including lung cancer. In fact, researchers found that fatigue is the most frequently reported symptom in individuals diagnosed with lung cancer.

That is because people with lung cancer may experience dyspnea and hypoxemia.

Dyspnea is a feeling of breathlessness, while hypoxemia is a condition in which the body doesn’t get enough oxygen. These two symptoms can lead to fatigue, making it difficult to perform everyday tasks.

Furthermore, as previously mentioned, lung cancer often leads to malnutrition and weight loss, both of which can contribute to fatigue.

So, if you’re experiencing fatigue that is not relieved by rest, it’s important to see a doctor for help determining the underlying cause.

Recurrent Lung Infections

If you have lung cancer, you may be more susceptible to developing lung infections. This is because cancerous cells can weaken the immune system, making it more difficult for the body to fight off infections.

In addition, tumors can grow and obstruct the airways, leading to a build-up of mucus and bacteria. This can create the perfect environment for an infection to take hold.

Again, if you’re suffering from recurrent lung infections that won’t seem to go away, it’s important to see a doctor. This is especially true if the infections are accompanied by other signs mentioned in this article.

FAQs About the Early Signs of Lung Cancer

Can You Feel Early Lung Cancer?

Early lung cancer often presents with minimal or no perceptible symptoms, making it difficult to feel or recognize.

Some individuals may experience subtle signs such as a mild cough or shortness of breath, but these symptoms can easily be mistaken for less serious conditions.

What are the Initial Signs of Lung Cancer?

The initial signs of lung cancer typically include a persistent cough, changes in the nature of a chronic cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, and recurrent respiratory infections.

Unexplained weight loss and fatigue are also common early indicators.

What Does Stage 1 Lung Cancer Feel Like?

Stage 1 lung cancer might not cause noticeable symptoms in many patients. When symptoms do occur, they can include a persistent cough, discomfort when breathing or coughing, and possibly chest pain.

Due to the general nature of these symptoms, they can often be overlooked or attributed to other less severe health issues.

What is the Survival Rate of Stage 1 Lung Cancer?

The survival rate for stage 1 lung cancer is relatively high compared to more advanced stages.

The five-year survival rate is almost 65%, particularly when the cancer is detected early and treated promptly. This highlights the importance of early detection and treatment.

Do You Cough Up a Lot of Phlegm with Lung Cancer?

Coughing up phlegm can be a symptom of lung cancer, particularly if the phlegm is persistent or contains blood.

However, not all individuals with lung cancer will experience significant phlegm production. The nature and amount of phlegm can vary widely among patients.

What is the Number One Symptom of Lung Cancer?

The most common symptom of lung cancer is a persistent cough that does not go away and may worsen over time.

This symptom is often accompanied by changes in breathing, such as shortness of breath or chest pain.

Where Do You Feel Pain with Lung Cancer?

Pain related to lung cancer can occur in the chest, especially where the tumor is located. However, as the disease progresses, it can spread to the back or shoulders. Pain may also arise from metastases in other areas like the bones.

Can Lung Cancer Cause Shoulder Pain?

Yes, lung cancer can cause shoulder pain, particularly if a tumor in the upper part of the lung (known as a Pancoast tumor) presses against nerves leading to the shoulder.

This type of pain is typically severe, persistent, and distinct from common muscle pain.

Is a Phlegmy Cough a Sign of Lung Cancer?

A phlegmy cough can be a sign of lung cancer, especially if it persists over time and is not related to other known causes like chronic bronchitis.

It is particularly concerning if the phlegm is bloody or if the coughing significantly worsens without an apparent reason.

When to See a Doctor About Potential Lung Cancer Symptoms?

It’s crucial to see a doctor if you experience persistent symptoms suggestive of lung cancer, such as a continuous cough, chest pain, unexplained weight loss, recurring respiratory infections, or coughing up blood.

Early consultation and testing are vital for effective treatment, especially when these symptoms are combined with risk factors such as a history of smoking or exposure to lung irritants.

Final Thoughts

Recognizing the early signs of lung cancer can significantly enhance the chances of successful treatment and survival.

Persistent cough, unexplained weight loss, chest pain, and changes in breathing are critical symptoms that warrant immediate medical attention. Early detection through vigilant self-awareness and regular health screenings is vital.

Anyone experiencing these symptoms should consult a healthcare professional promptly to discuss potential diagnostic tests and the best course of action.

David Randolph, MD

Written by:

David Randolph, MD
David Randolph earned a bachelor's degree in Biochemistry and has work experience as a teaching assistant, tutor, and guest lecturer. He graduated from UNC-Chapel​ Hill School of Medicine in 2017.


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