September 1, 2023 - 11:11 am
When something is off with your lungs, it can signify a serious issue. It’s important to pay attention to the signs of lung disease and any symptoms that indicate your lungs might not be healthy, as early detection can go a long way in helping to manage and treat conditions such as lung disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer — the leading cancer killer of men and women in the United States.
For this reason, you shouldn’t ignore anything like a chronic cough or recurring chest pain.
“If you keep having persistent symptoms, you should get checked more deeply, especially if you are a smoker or ex-smoker or have other risk factors,” says Dr. Miguel Villalona-Calero, deputy director and chief scientific officer at Miami Cancer Institute.
How can you tell if your lungs are healthy? Here are some signs you should watch out for, according to top doctors:
Long-term chest pain
Any pain in the chest area that lasts longer than a month can be a sign of a serious lung condition, such as lung disease. One thing to watch out for, according to Villalona-Calero, is “chest pain that is often worse with deep breathing, coughing or laughing,” as this can be a symptom of lung cancer.
If you have a lot of mucus in your throat or chest that lingers for a month or longer, this could signal lung disease. Per the American Lung Association, phlegm is produced by the airways as a defense against infections or irritants. A medical professional should definitely evaluate chronic mucus production.
Strained or noisy breathing can be a sign that something is obstructing the airways in your lungs or causing them to narrow. “Most commonly, this is seen in asthma, but it can also be seen with pneumonias, bronchitis and COPD,” explains Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist with Allergy & Asthma Network.
While it is normal for a cough to last for a couple of weeks because of things such as bronchitis or the flu, a chronic cough could indicate a serious lung problem. “A persistent cough is just one of the symptoms associated with mesothelioma cancer, and those who have been prone to being exposed to asbestos should monitor their health as frequent and soon as possible, as this disease can progress quite rapidly,” says Colin Ruggiero, a health investigator with Mesothelioma.com. This can also be a sign of a lung infection, asthma, COPD or pulmonary fibrosis, Parikh says, and should be evaluated by a physician or lung specialist.
Swelling, pain or tenderness in legs
These types of symptoms can be signs of a more serious blood clot in the legs, “which can travel to your lungs and cause dangerous problems, including death, if not addressed,” Parikh says.
Feeling constantly exhausted
Dr. Laren Tan, a pulmonologist at Loma Linda University Health in Southern California, notes that exhaustion, fatigue and sleepiness can be related to sleep apnea, a disease that can cause sleep interruptions by stopping and starting a person’s breathing. “It can be due to breathing harder than usual all day long or at night,” he explains, noting that this could be a sign that oxygen levels are low during the day. Additional symptoms of the condition include issues with memory and concentration, snoring, pauses in breathing, morning headaches, dry mouth and excessive moodiness/irritability.
Coughing up blood
If you notice blood when you cough, get to your doctor’s office immediately, as this can be a sign of a serious health condition. “The most common pulmonary reason for this symptom is bronchitis due to infection. However, the most life-threatening reason for coughing up blood (hemoptysis) is lung cancer. And this can also be seen in pulmonary embolism,” explains Dr. Ken Knox, a pulmonary medicine specialist and associate dean of faculty affairs and development at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, Phoenix.
Shortness of breath
If you’re feeling short of breath, this may be due to lung area asthma, COPD, pulmonary fibrosis and pulmonary hypertension, Tan says. The time frame in which shortness of breath occurs can also help in determining the cause. “Most common is an infection, but that is typically associated with other symptoms like productive cough, fevers and chills. One life-threatening cause of shortness of breath that can occur rapidly is pulmonary embolism, which can occur with or without chest pain,” Knox explains.
“When your lungs are not able to strongly exhale due to lack of strength or air, your voice can change and become very soft,” Tan explains. “Another cause that is not typically thought of as to why your voice would change is something called paradoxical vocal cord dysfunction. This is where your vocal cords are not functioning well and can cause your voice to change.”
Fingernails that look blue
Blue fingernails can be a sign of cyanosis, a condition in which there is an inadequate amount of oxygen circulating throughout the blood. This ailment can be caused by severe lung disease. If you think that your nails may look a little bluer than usual, you should be evaluated by a pulmonologist, Parikh says.
Unexplained weight changes can be associated with increased effort in breathing, which results in the body using more energy just to breathe. “Chronic respiratory infections like mycobacterium avium complex can cause weight loss, but MAC typically has other associated signs and symptoms in addition to radiographic findings on lung imaging,” Tan says.
“If it’s not caused by muscular pain or due to vigorous coughing, shoulder pain can be seen in lung cancer or when a pulmonary embolism happens,” Knox says.
Persistent respiratory infections
Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that don’t go away or keep coming back can be a sign of something more serious, such as lung cancer, Villalona-Calero says. One reason for these reinfections could be that a lung tumor is restricting the airway.