You have swelling, pain, and tenderness in one leg
At first glance, this seems like it'd have nothing to do with your lungs. But this can be a sign you have deep vein thrombosis, a blood clot in your leg, says Andrea McKee, MD, Chairman of Radiation Oncology at the Lahey Hospital & Medical Center (LHMC) Sophia Gordon Cancer Center in Burlington, Massachusetts. McKee also serves on the Lung Association's Lung Cancer Expert Medical Advisory Panel and works with their LUNG FORCE initiative to help raise awareness and educate women about lung cancer. The risk here is that the blood clot can 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: 30 percent of patients with this condition die, reports the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
You're short of breath
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. Here's how to make sure you're taking antibiotics safely. These 12 lung-friendly foods will help you breathe better.
You've started taking the elevator instead of the stairs
If you feel like your breathing is labored 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). It is the third leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the American Lung Association. And while 11 million people have been diagnosed, many more people have no idea they have it—particularly women. Plus, many people think that shortness of breath walking across a parking lot simply happens as you age, but this isn't a normal toll of getting older. These 11 lung exercises can help you build lung power.
"We tell patients that if you feel like you can't take a deep breath, you need to see your doctor," says Dr. McKee. They'll want to rule out potential diseases like COPD or even anemia (which can be detected with a simple blood test). Another possible cause of wheezing is adult-onset asthma, which is more severe compared to 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.
You have no symptoms at all
Lung cancer is something you never want to hear. But the scary news is that early stage lung cancer rarely comes with symptoms, says Dr. McKee. "We usually find stage one 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 a 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. (See if you're a candidate at the American Lung Association's website.) "That's nine million people," she says. Learn more about the 7 silent signs of lung cancer.
You cough up blood
Miriam Doerr Martin Frommherz/shutterstock
That alarming sign will likely send you straight to the doc, stat. (The blood may be bright red or more brown and mucous-y.) While this can be a sign of lung cancer, says Dr. McKee, it doesn't mean you have it. Many other things can mean that you're coughing up blood, from the benign (a pulled abdominal muscle) to chronic bronchitis or emphysema, notes the Mayo Clinic. Regardless, this is not something to ignore or brush aside in fear of what's really going on. Talk to your doc.
How to keep your lungs healthy
"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. Don't miss the 11 things doctors wish you knew about lung cancer.