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Lynne Eldridge MD

Is it Just a Smokers Cough?

By November 11, 2012

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During Lung Cancer Awareness Month many of us are spreading the word:

  • "Be familiar with the symptoms of lung cancer."

  • "We don't have a screening test for everyone to do yearly for lung cancer, so for most people, knowing the symptoms is the best way to catch the disease in the earliest stages."

  • "A persistent cough is one of the most common symptoms of lung cancer."

So what about people who have a persistent cough due to smoking? What about people with a smoker's cough? One study estimated that 40% of military recruits who smoke have a chronic cough. So how do you know when it's "only" a smokers cough and not something more ominous, such as lung cancer?

Sadly, the answer is that you can't tell.

A cough that's a warning sign for lung cancer can sound and feel identical to a "nuisance" smokers cough.

That said, if you are a smoker there are a few signals that may suggest your cough is something more. If you cough up blood, feel short of breath, develop hoarseness or lose weight for no reason (unexplained weight loss), you should head to your doctor. And if the cough just seems different to you in any way - if it's more frequent, harsher, or you have any subjective sensation that your cough has changed - you should pick up the phone and make an appointment.

In addition, for some people who smoke, CT lung cancer screening may be recommended. So even if your cough hasn't changed and you have no other symptoms, talk to your doctor.

Of course the best solution if you have a smokers cough is to quit smoking. Yes, I've heard the complaints from people who quit and notice their cough actually increases for a while after quitting. It's true that your cough may indeed increase for a few weeks or months, but it almost always decreases with time.

As a last reminder -- and something very important to stress during this month of lung cancer awareness - anyone can get lung cancer. If you've never even seen a cigarette you could be at risk. In fact 20% of women who develop lung cancer have never touched a cigarette. If you have a chronic cough, even if you've never smoked, talk to your doctor.

Photo: Flickr.com, author Lewy

November 15, 2012 at 3:30 pm
(1) Diane says:

Strongly object that test are only available for smokers. I asked for an xray 4 or 5 times and was dismissed because I had never smoked. I had a dull pain between my breast – it was just a pulled muscle. They only found cancer after my doctor retired and new doc found accidently. Now I am stage 3 cancer. Makes me wonder what if they looked 7 years ago.

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