A nagging cough is one of the most recognizable and expected symptoms of lung cancer. However, most coughs are just innocent responses to environmental lung irritants or allergens. Also, several other diseases, such as tuberculosis, bronchitis, whooping cough, COVID-19, and the common flu, are characterized by a compulsive cough. So, when does a cough signal lung cancer? And would it be possible to recognize a lung cancer cough from its sound?
What Are the Signs of a Lung Cancer Cough?
Any form of lung cancer can induce coughing. Generally, the lung cancer cough results from cancerous cells obstructing the airways or the growing tumor irritating the surrounding lung tissue. The coughing can start at any stage of the disease, although some lung cancer patients do not cough at all. In a 2020 survey involving a sample of lung cancer patients, only 54% of those not receiving treatment reported coughing.
The Lung Cancer Cough Sound
Lung cancer coughs have no distinct pattern. For instance, the coughing may be prevalent during the night or day, wet or dry; painful or completely painless. As for the lung cancer cough sound, it varies widely between individuals. Some people make a heavy throaty or chesty sound, while others let out high-pitched barks, depending on where the tumor is, its size, and its effect on the lungs.
The point is, that there are too many variables in a lung cancer cough to profile it definitively. However, here are some common characteristics of coughs linked to lung cancer:
- A persistent cough lasting more than eight consecutive weeks and worsening with time
- Coughing up mucus or phlegm stained with blood or brown spots
- Coughs accompanied by wheezing and difficulty breathing
- An irritating cough that interferes with sleep
Coughing alone is not an indication of lung cancer. In most lung cancer patients, the coughing comes with other more distinct symptoms, such as:
- Persistent or recurring chest pain
- Swollen lymph glands
- Bone pain, particularly in the back, shoulders, and hips
- Hoarse voice
- Constantly feeling tired and weak
- Difficulty or pain when swallowing or speaking
- Unexplained loss of appetite and body weight
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes from jaundice if cancer spreads to the liver
- The onset of hormonal and neurological disorders such as Horner, paraneoplastic, and superior vena cava (SVC) syndromes
The Smoker’s Cough and Lung Cancer
As the name suggests, a smoker’s cough afflicts tobacco smokers. The cough can become a chronic problem for regular smokers. A recent survey on a randomized sample found that chronic cough was significantly more prevalent among smokers than non-smokers.
The smoker’s cough is often characterized by wheezing, chest and throat pain, hoarse voice, clear or stained phlegm, crackling sound when breathing, and shortness of breath. Sometimes the uncanny similarity between the smoker’s cough and the lung cancer cough is no coincidence. Although smokers cough in an attempt to purge toxins from their lungs, in some cases, the cough could indicate cancer.
According to the CDC, smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer. Tobacco smoke contains at least 70 known carcinogens, making smokers up to 30 times more likely to get or die from lung cancer. To put that into perspective, smoking alone is responsible for 80% to 90% of all lung cancer deaths in the United States. A 2020 study by the American Cancer Society further corroborates CDC’s data. Researchers found that more than 90% of men and 84% of women diagnosed with lung cancer either smoke or used to smoke.
The correlation between smoking and lung cancer is undeniable. It’s easy to see how a lung cancer cough could be disguised, mistaken, or simply ignored as a smoker’s cough. It’s possible for smokers with undiagnosed lung cancer to unwittingly receive treatment for smoker’s cough. So, despite their high chances of developing lung cancer, smokers also risk having a more severe condition misdiagnosed and treated as a smoker’s cough.
Understanding the distinction between a smoker’s cough and a lung cancer cough could mean the difference between life and death for the patient. While not every case of smoker’s cough may signal cancer, it’s well-advised to get any persistent cough checked out, especially when the patient exhibits other unusual symptoms.
Looking Beyond the Cough
Listening to cough may not give a definitive answer as to whether a person has lung cancer. This is because the lung cancer cough sound and characteristics vary from person to person. Also, other cough-related diseases and conditions can mask a lung cancer cough. But all in all, a persistent cough points to an underlying respiratory problem. Rather than speculate, it’s better to get a professional diagnosis for coughs lasting more than two weeks.
If the doctor suspects lung cancer from a cough or other indicators, they will conduct a series of tests to confirm or rule out the disease. The tests may include:
- Sputum Cytology – If the cough is productive, the doctor will take a sputum sample and examine it under a microscope. The contents of the sputum may reveal the presence of cancer cells, which would warrant further investigation.
- Chest X-ray – An X-ray image can show lung abnormalities, including tumors, infections, and tissue damage.
- CT Scan – If the X-ray image suggests the presence of lung cancer, the patient moves on to a CT scan. Unlike the X-ray, a CT scan creates highly detailed images of the lungs, validating the presence of a tumor.
- PET-CT Scan – The patient may require a PET-CT scan to show the extent of cancer. This helps the doctor stage the disease and give a prognosis.
- Bronchoscopy – In this test, the doctor inserts a flexible tube with a tiny camera at its end down the trachea to look inside the lungs and airways. The bronchoscope can also collect fluid and tissue samples. Bronchoscopy may not be necessary if image scans are satisfactory.
- Biopsy – This is done when the doctor needs to test a tumor sample. A biopsy is an invasive procedure that can be done in a few different ways, such as thoracoscopy, needle biopsy, and mediastinoscopy.
Early detection is critical when it comes to cancer treatment. While a persistent or chronic cough may not necessarily signal lung cancer, it’s a good cue to get a thorough check-up. Whether the tests read positive or negative for lung cancer, the appropriate treatment can begin right away. For more information about lung cancer diagnosis and treatment, do not hesitate to schedule a free consultation with Brio-Medical, the top alternative cancer treatment center in Scottsdale, AZ.