Most of us have been there. You start to have an unexplained, persistent dry cough; experience breathlessness; and may feel tightness in your chest. You might begin to wonder whether the symptoms you are having are due to COVID-19.
What does not normally come to mind, especially for nonsmokers, is the possibility that those symptoms indicate underlying lung cancer.
“COVID-19 symptoms will arise much faster at the onset, and will be much quicker to worsen or improve,” says Dr. Norman Chen, a diagnostic radiologist affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. “Upper respiratory symptoms and loss of smell and taste are more specific to COVID-19, while coughing up blood and unexplained weight loss are more associated with lung cancer.”
Overlapping symptoms of a mild or severe COVID-19 infection and symptoms of lung cancer can be especially hard to differentiate, but it can also encourage more people to be screened sooner. In the U.S., lung cancer is the leading cause of death among all cancer-related deaths in men and women. Early detection is vital because it is easier to treat lung cancer when it’s found at an earlier stage.
Symptoms of COVID-19
COVID-19 symptoms can begin to develop anywhere from 2 to 14 days after exposure to the coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms of COVID-19 can include:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
Symptoms of lung cancer
At times, symptoms of lung cancer may not appear until the disease has advanced or spread. As it progresses, symptoms can be more severe but can also vary from person to person. The following are common symptoms of lung cancer, according to the American Cancer Society:
- A cough that does not go away or gets worse
- Coughing up blood
- Chest pain that is often worse with deep breathing, coughing or laughing
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling tired or weak
- Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that don’t go away or keep coming back
- New onset of wheezing
“If you have a cough or other symptoms that persist for more than a few weeks, you should consider talking with your doctor about whether lung cancer could be a significant concern,” Dr. Chen says. “But even if you don't have any symptoms at all, there are well-developed guidelines for lung cancer screening, designed to identify early-stage, treatable cancers in high-risk patients before they ever develop any symptoms. Early detection remains the key to effective treatment for all types of cancer.”
People who are at higher risk for COVID-19 and lung cancer — including older individuals with underlying medical conditions or people who are immunocompromised — should receive a COVID-19 vaccine. It is also important to pay close attention if you are at high risk or have symptoms, and to talk with your doctor about screening to receive timely, effective treatment, if necessary.
If you feel you may be at risk for lung cancer, contact your primary care doctor. Sharp HealthCare offers lung cancer screening options across San Diego County for patients who qualify.