A cough that just won’t go away, laboured breathing when you climb stairs and hoarseness can cause alarms to go off. Here’s what you need to know about these and the sometimes unexpected symptoms of lung disease.
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 Andrea McKee, MD. McKee 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 because 30 percent of patients with this condition die, reports the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
A cold or flu can really do a number on you. “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 Dr McKee. And compromised lung function can become bacterial pneumonia or bronchitis. You’ll need a medical evaluation to determine the problem and antibiotics to recover.
If you feel as if your breathing is laboured 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 (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). The Global Burden of Disease study reports a prevalence of 251 million cases of COPD globally, causing 3.17 million deaths (5% of all deaths globally). And on top of the diagnosed cases, many more people have no idea they have it – particularly women. Many people think that shortness of breath while walking across a car park simply happens as you age, but this isn’t a normal toll of getting older.
“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 anaemia (which can be detected with a simple blood test). Another possible cause of wheezing is adult-onset asthma, which is more severe than asthma that develops in childhood, according to research in the European Respiratory Review. In fact, 10 percent of adults over 65 may have it, and it may be triggered by conditions like chronic sinusitis.
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, the Mayo Clinic notes. Regardless, this is not something to ignore or brush aside in fear of what’s really going on. Talk to your doc as soon as possible.
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 an Egyptian study.
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 tumours can pinch the nerves that supply the shoulders, which is why some of the earliest symptoms of lung disease can include pain in the shoulders.
COPD keeps your tissues from getting enough oxygen, which could lead to colour changes in certain body parts. Specifically, watch for cyanosis in the lips, fingernail beds and skin, which could make them turn blue, greyish, or dark purple. The colour 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.
Normally, you might cheer when the number on the scale slides down, but this isn’t necessarily cause for celebration. Between 40 and 70 percent of people with COPD experience unexpected weight loss. Those dropped kilos 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.
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. Your bed is a breeding ground for dust mites, so spending hours on end with your face on your pillow can trigger an asthma attack, pulmonologist Timothy McGee, DO, tells Self magazine. Plus, your body starts producing more of the stress hormone cortisol at night, which leads to inflammation in the airways that exacerbates symptoms, he adds. Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor about a new asthma treatment – without the right care, asthma can permanently damage the airways.
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, including cancer. 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.
Lung cancer is something you never want to think about, but the scary news is that 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 should be screened with a low-dose CT scan.
“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.
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