Is it cough or lung cancer?

Very common symptoms like cough can sometimes be a symptom of underlying lung cancer, warns Dr Arunesh Kumar

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With a change in environment and increasing pollution levels, the lung is the most affected organ of the body. No wonder cough is one of the most common symptoms reported by patients in chest clinics.

Allergy, asthma, COPD, chest infection, pneumonia are the most common causes behind cough. But in some cases, we do see cough as the first symptom of an underlying lung cancer. Those in their early 40s and above, with a smoking history of 15 years or above, are at high risk.

This is, however, not always the case as there are more people who are non-smokers and relatively younger in age who are ending up with lung cancer. 

In 2013, outdoor air pollution was distinguished as a reason for cancer by International Agency for Research on Cancer. It’s responsible for far less cases of cancer than other risk factors, such as smoking and obesity, but air pollution affects everyone.

Research shows that tiny dust-like particles called ‘particulate matter’, or PM are an important part of air pollution. The little particles — under 2.5 millionths of a metre across, known as PM2.5— appear to be behind lung cancers caused by pollution.

The risk of getting lung cancer increases as the level of PM2.5 in the air increases. Hence, very common symptoms like cough can sometimes be a symptom of underlying lung cancer.

Other symptoms of lung cancer are:

A cough, which is not going away

Getting short of breath on little exertion or at rest.

Noticing blood in sputum.

Weight loss and loss of appetite.

Hoarseness of voice.

Feeling very tired and fatigued.

Aches and pains in chest and shoulders.

The key to diagnosing cancer is to diagnose it early. Early stage lung cancers are completely curable unlike advanced lung cancers, which are not. It is therefore very important to see a doctor early if your cough continues beyond three weeks without an explanation. Early chest X-ray plays a vital role and a very important early screening tool.

The stage of a cancer reveals to you how big it is and whether it has spread. Realising the stage can help decide which treatment the patient needs.

(The author is senior consultant,  Paras Hospitals, Gurgaon)

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