12 Silent Signs Your Lungs Could Be in Trouble
Wheezing, persistent coughing, shortness of breath while going up the stairs—these are some of the symptoms of lung disease to watch out for.
You’re short of breath
A cold or flu viruses can really do a number on your lungs. “If you have an underlying lung issue or if you’re under a lot of stress or dealing with a significant life event, you’re more prone to developing a bacterial infection on top of your cold,” says Andrea McKee, MD, chairman of radiation oncology at the Lahey Hospital & Medical Center Sophia Gordon Cancer Center in Burlington, Massachusetts. And compromised lung function can become bacterial pneumonia or bronchitis. You’ll need a medical evaluation to determine the problem and antibiotics to recover. However, don’t ask for antibiotics to treat your cold or flu—those are caused by viruses and antibiotics are useless. Only if you also develop a bacterial infection after a viral infection do antibiotics make sense for respiratory symptoms.
You’ve started taking the elevator instead of the stairs
If you feel as if your breathing is labored during normal activities and you’ve developed a chronic cough (without first having a cold) or have shortness of breath, your doctor may test for COPD (although these symptoms could be due to asthma or other causes). It is the third leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Lung Association. And while 11 million people have been diagnosed, many more people have no idea they have it—particularly women. Plus, many people think that shortness of breath while walking across a parking lot simply happens as you age, but this isn’t a normal toll of getting older. The main cause of COPD is smoking, followed by secondhand smoke, exposure to dust or chemical fumes in the workplace or environment, or a genetic condition, (Here are signs you may have COPD.)
You’re wheezing or coughing
“We tell patients that if you feel like you can’t take a deep breath, you need to see your doctor,” says Dr. McKee. Your doctor will want to rule out potential diseases like COPD or even anemia (which can be detected with a simple blood test). Another possible cause of coughing or wheezing is adult-onset asthma, which is more persistent than asthma that develops in childhood, according to the Asthma and Allergy Association of America. In general, the symptoms of asthma can include a dry cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest tightness, and colds that never seem to go away.
You cough up blood
This is one of the most alarming symptoms of lung disease and will likely send you straight to the doc, stat. (The blood may be bright red or more brown and mucus-y.) While this symptom can be a sign of lung cancer, says Dr. McKee, it doesn’t mean you have it. Many other things can cause you to cough up blood, from the benign (a pulled abdominal muscle) to chronic bronchitis or emphysema. Regardless, this is not something to ignore or brush aside in fear of what’s really going on. Talk to your doc, and watch out for these uncommon signs of lung cancer you should be aware of.
Your voice changes
Pay attention if someone comments that your voice sounds different. It might be as simple as a cold, but hoarseness that lasts more than a couple of weeks could be among the more serious symptoms of lung disease. Because people with COPD can’t hold as much air in their lungs, they could experience changes in their voice or have trouble getting the words out, according to a 2018 study in the Egyptian Journal of Bronchology.
You have seemingly random shoulder pain
In most cases, shoulder pain comes from a strained muscle or inflammation. But if you haven’t done anything to hurt your muscle and the ache lasts for weeks without any signs of letting up, you might want to see a doctor to rule out lung cancer—especially if you’re a smoker. Certain types of lung tumors may cause shoulder pain on the same side of the body as the lung that is affected. Some of the earliest symptoms of lung disease can include pain in the shoulders. (Try these 11 exercises that can help you build better lungs.)
Your fingernails are turning blue
Any condition that keeps your tissues from getting enough oxygen could lead to color changes in certain body parts. Specifically, watch for cyanosis in the lips, fingernail beds, and skin, which could make them turn blue, grayish, or dark purple. The color change might start off subtle and get progressively more noticeable as the disease progresses, or it might appear suddenly during an acute COPD attack. If that’s the case, visit your doctor, pronto. (Learn about home remedies for shortness of breath.)
You’ve been losing weight
Between 40 and 70 percent of people with COPD experience unexpected weight loss. Those dropped pounds are a sign that the body isn’t able to work efficiently. Your body is constantly burning calories just to do basic functions like breathing, but the muscles of people with COPD need to work harder to keep up with the body’s demands, burning about ten times more calories to breathe than people without lung disease, according to the Lung Institute. Weight loss alone isn’t enough to point to lung problems, but if it’s paired with other symptoms of lung disease, you’ll want to ask your doctor to investigate.
Your coughing keeps you up at night
It’s easy to brush off a chronic cough if it only crops up at night, but for people with asthma, nocturnal coughing fits should be checked out. Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor about a new asthma treatment—without the right care, asthma can damage the airways. Note, there are also other causes of nighttime coughing such as GERD, viral infections, allergies, and post-nasal drip.
You’re exhausted all the time
When you’re tired, a good night’s sleep can rejuvenate you; when you’re fatigued, all the sleep in the world won’t bring your energy back. It can be a symptom of a slew of diseases. For lung cancer patients in particular, the fatigue can stem from the fact that decreased lung function takes a toll on your body, according to the Lung Cancer Alliance. If you’re feeling exhausted in addition to other possible symptoms of lung disease, talk to your doctor. (Add these 12 lung-friendly foods to your menu to help you breathe better.)
You have no symptoms at all
It’s relatively rare, but early-stage lung cancer rarely comes with symptoms, says Dr. McKee. “We usually find stage 1 lung cancer by accident,” she says. That may be because a patient needed a chest or spine X-ray for something entirely different, and the cancer was spotted at that time. By the time other symptoms crop up—back pain, headaches, fatigue—that’s often a sign it’s spread to other parts of the body. That’s why, if you’re at high risk for lung cancer (you’re over 55 and have a 30-year history of smoking), you may be a candidate for screening with a low-dose CT scan. (Lung cancer screening is not without risks, so see if you are a candidate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) “That’s nine million people,” she says.
You have swelling, pain, and tenderness in one leg
At first glance, this doesn’t seem like it would be among the symptoms of lung disease. But these leg problems could be a sign that you have deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot in your leg, says Dr. Mckee who also sits on the American Lung Association’s (ALA) Lung Cancer Expert Medical Advisory Panel and works with the ALA’s LUNG FORCE initiative to help raise awareness and educate women about lung cancer.
The risk here is that the blood clot could break off and get into your lung, a condition called a pulmonary embolism. A clot in your lung can block blood flow and cause serious damage. Other clues include shortness of breath, problems breathing, and chest pain. (But you may also have no lung symptoms.) It’s important to get help as soon as you can. Although it’s rare, 30 percent of patients with this condition die, reports the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (Try these lung exercises to help you build lung power.)
How to keep your lungs healthy
“The most important thing you can do is avoid tobacco use,” says Dr. McKee. “People need to understand that the lungs are filters that bring oxygen to the rest of your body and help clear out carcinogens and other unhealthy debris,” she adds. And you don’t want to clog those filters. “You only get one set,” she says. Treat them well. Now read about things in your home that can damage your lungs.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Lung disease"
- Andrea McKee, MD, chairman of radiation oncology at the Lahey Hospital & Medical Center Sophia Gordon Cancer Center in Burlington, Massachusetts
- The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: "Venous Thromboembolism"
- American Lung Association: "Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)"
- Asthma and Allergy Association of America: "Adult Onset Asthma"
- Mayo Clinic: "Coughing up blood"
- Egyptian Journal of Bronchology: "Study of voice disorders in patients with bronchial asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease"
- Pancoast Syndrome: "Pancoast Syndrome"
- COPD.net: "Blueness of the Lips or Fingernail Beds"
- Lung Institute: "Is There a Connection between Weight Loss and COPD?"
- Nocturnal Cough: "Nocturnal Cough"
- Lung Cancer Alliance: "Tiredness and Fatigue"
- American Lung Association: "What Do I Need to Know about Lung Cancer Screening?"