Lung cancer

Symptoms of lung cancer

There are a variety of ways in which lung cancer may make itself known. Some people only discover it during a routine medical check-up, while others may have had signs and symptoms for many months.

It is worth asking your doctor for an X-ray or other tests if you have any of the following unexplained symptoms for more than three weeks, especially if you're over 35 and you smoke:

  • Repeated chest infections that do not respond to antibiotics within three weeks
  • An increase in the amount you cough
  • Sputum (spit) that is bloody in colour
  • Loss of voice but your throat feels fine
  • Breathlessness
  • Chest or shoulder pains
  • Facial and/or neck swelling
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unexplained tiredness
  • A change of shape at the ends of your fingers known as clubbing
  • Hoarseness

Diagnosing and treating lung cancer can be complicated because symptoms often don't appear until the cancer has spread to other areas and organs in the body.

Often the lung tumour does not cause symptoms but the spread of cancer to other areas of the body is what alerts you or your doctor to there being a problem (for example pain or a fracture in your bones, or headaches, seizures or symptoms similar to a stroke).

Lung cancer is sometimes diagnosed in people who don’t have any symptoms, but who are having a chest X-ray or scan for another reason.

If you regularly experience any of these symptoms, which are not normal for you, it is important that you see your GP.

It is unlikely that your symptoms are caused by a serious problem but it is important to be checked out. It is most likely to be a benign (non-cancerous) condition that can easily be treated by seeing the GP.

The earlier a cancer is picked up, the easier it is to treat it and the more likely the treatment is to be successful.

Referral guidelines for cancer

To help your GP decide if cancer is the cause of your symptoms, Health Improvement Scotland (HIS) has published national referral guidelines, outlining:

  • which symptoms might indicate cancer
  • who to refer the patient to if they suspect cancer
  • what action to take if they do not suspect cancer.

These guidelines only cover the three most common types of cancer (bowel, breast and lung) but HIS are developing similar guidelines for other cancer types. 

Last updated: 06 August 2014

Continue to next section: Causes and risk factors of lung cancer