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What Can Be Mistaken For Lung Cancer? – 9 Diseases That Mimic Lung Cancer Symptoms

Lung cancer has a reputation for being particularly evasive during routine screenings and medical tests. This attribute is mainly because of the symptoms of this deadly disease clash with the symptoms of numerous other moderate and severe pulmonary illnesses.

With all the similarities in the signs and symptoms of lung cancer with that of other illnesses, misdiagnosis is also a strong possibility. Very often, some other pulmonary illness is misdiagnosed as lung cancer and vice versa.

Why does this mistake occur? Is there any way to avoid it? And what diseases can be mistaken as lung cancer?

These are the common questions that are frequently asked. Read the article ahead to get all these questions answered in a comprehensive and descriptive manner.

Why Does Such Misdiagnosis Occur?

The detection of lung cancer in its early stages is very rare. This is because the early signs of lung cancer are often misunderstood as some other pulmonary illness. Similarly, the symptoms of other conditions are frequently mistaken as lung cancer.

9 Illnesses That Mimic Lung Cancer Symptoms

Most of the pulmonary symptoms are caused by a blockage in the airways, inflammation of the airways, mucus buildup in the lungs, inflammation in the lungs, and the formation of scar tissues in the lungs. All this can be caused by several health conditions.

The paragraphs below discuss the 9 diseases that commonly mimic and are mistakenly diagnosed as lung cancer. What Are The 7 Signs Of Lung cancer?

1. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

COPD is a set of diseases like emphysema and bronchitis that block the airways, making it difficult for you to breathe. This leads to symptoms including shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing with/without blood, frequent lung infection symptoms, etc. These are on par with lung cancer symptoms, which could easily lead to misdiagnosis.

While COPD is a distinct condition, it in itself is a risk factor for Lung Cancer This makes it more difficult to distinguish the indicators of both illnesses.

2. Tuberculosis

Pulmonary tuberculosis is endemic in India which increases its incidence and prevalence is quite high. Many of the signs and symptoms of Lung Cancer are similar to Tuberculosis, and hence many patients of Lung Cancer in our country can be misdiagnosed as Pulmonary Tuberculosis. Some of the symptoms of Lung Cancer that can be present in patients with pulmonary tuberculosis include cough, blood in sputum, loss of appetite, weight loss.

Even on Radiological imaging tests the spots seen on the Lungs can be mistaken for tuberculosis. It is therefore very important to keep a high index of suspicion and get a biopsy of any suspicious Lung spot, at least of the doubt.

3. Pneumonia

Pneumonia is the inflammation of the lungs caused by a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection. It is often characterized by chest pain, shortness of breath, and coughing, which are similar to the first signs of lung cancer.

However, pneumonia also leads to fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. These symptoms are not associated with lung cancer and hence, can be useful in distinguishing these illnesses.

4. Cystic Lung Disease

Cystic lung disease is a set of disorders that lead to the formation of fluid-filled sacs, called cysts, in the lungs. It includes the following rare conditions:

  • Lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM)
  • Birt-Hogg-Dube Syndrome (BHD)
  • Pulmonary Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis (PLCH)
  • Lymphoid Interstitial Pneumonia (LIP)

These conditions lead to coughing, shortness of breath, and, at times, chest pain. Also, the cysts might show up in the imaging tests as abnormal growths.

Cystic lung disease can be misdiagnosed as lung cancer, especially during the early days of the disease. Unlike lung cancer symptoms, the symptoms of lung cysts do not get as aggressive and debilitating.

5. Lung Abscess

Lung abscess is the untimely death, medically termed necrosis, of the tissues of the lungs. The necrosis here is often described as liquefactive, referring to the way the tissues seem to melt away and leave behind pus-filled cavities in the walls of the lungs.

In x-rays, lung abscesses almost always resemble lung cancer or another condition called sarcoidosis. Even in CT scans, these abscesses could be perceived as cancerous growths if not paid close attention.

Its symptoms also coincide with some of the symptoms of lung cancer in men and women. These include chest pain, frequent lung infection symptoms, coughing, and fatigue. However, there are certain distinguishing symptoms like fever and coughing up sputum with bloody or foul-smelling pus.

6. Allergies

Pulmonary allergies are both acute and chronic. While acute allergies are not alarming, chronic cases can lead to some long-term symptoms. These include tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing. Such cases are often triggered by continuous exposure to allergens.

Such allergies can also cause sneezing, itchiness, and a runny nose. As these are not lung cancer symptoms, they can serve as a distinguishing factor.

7. Asthma

Asthma is caused by inflammation and/or the buildup of mucus in the lungs. This usually blocks the airways, leading to the characteristic symptoms of this condition.

Shortness of breath and wheezing are the most common symptoms that coincide with the symptoms of lung cancer in women and men. Other features include fast breathing and frequent respiratory infections.

However, by proper diagnosis and careful observation, a case of asthma can be easily distinguished from lung cancer.

8. Heart Problems

The heart and lungs work closely in the human body. A condition related to the heart can lead to pulmonary symptoms and vice versa.

Cardiac problems like the irregular beating of the heart called arrhythmia, and functional problems with the valve affect the functioning of the lungs as well.

It could lead to symptoms like shortness of breath, chest pain, and sometimes bloody cough. These features can be easily associated with pulmonary issues and mistaken as the signs and symptoms of lung cancer.

How Can You Avoid Misdiagnosis?

When it comes to diagnosis and lung cancer treatment in India, time is an immensely valuable factor, whether you are dealing with lung cancer or some other illness. A misdiagnosis can severely misguide your course of treatment and could even worsen the symptoms. Hence, it is necessary that after every diagnosis, you are sure about its reliability before getting started with the treatment.

Here is how you can prevent misdiagnosis from misguiding your treatment path.

  • Explain your symptoms properly to the doctor
  • If there is any doubt or confusion in a test result, like an x-ray, opt for a more effective method, like a CT scan or an MRI
  • Do not hesitate to take second opinions before starting any treatment
  • If the treatment does not seem to have positive effects during the early days, opt for a second opinion

The Outlook

Early and accurate diagnosis of any condition is highly necessary for its proper treatment. Misdiagnosis not only keeps you from the treatment you need but it could sometimes also worsen the condition. Hence, make sure that you opt for a reliable and expert doctor for the diagnosis. In case of any doubt, do not hesitate to ask questions and seek second opinions.

Dr. Arvind Kumar has been serving as a chest specialist for over 40 years and has established himself as one of the most trusted and skilled professionals for thoracic and chest cases all across India. Currently offering his services at Medanta Hospital, Gurgaon, he, along with his team of experts, provides the most comprehensive diagnostic, and treatment plans at an economical price.


1. How can you rule out lung cancer? 

For now, only a low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) is approved and deemed safe for the screening of cancer. Hence, if you experience concerning symptoms and imaging tests like x-rays do not give satisfactory information, your doctor would prescribe an LDCT scan to rule out the possibility of lung cancer.

2. Will a chest x-ray show lung cancer? 

Yes, an x-ray can detect cancerous growth in the lungs. Such tumors often appear as grayish-white shadows in the results. However, an x-ray can not always detect lung cancer, especially during the early stages. Many cases of lung cancer cases are missed on x-ray results during the early phase.

3. Which is the most reliable diagnostic means for lung cancer?

A biopsy is the most trusted diagnostic method to make the final diagnosis of cancer. If the previous tests and observations indicate the possibility of lung cancer, the doctor would perform a biopsy to be sure. In this method, a sample of the tumor or the cellular growth is extracted and observed. If this sample shows the symptoms of cancerous cells, the diagnosis of cancer is positive.

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