A new survey timed to coincide with Lung Cancer Awareness Month found that only a small minority of people in the UK realize that a persistent cough is a key symptom of lung cancer.

In a bid to raise awareness of early symptoms of lung cancer as the season for flus and colds sets in, people are urged to seek help if they find themselves unable to shake off a persistent cough: it could be a sign of something more serious.

A Royal Pharmaceutical Society/YouGov survey of over 2,000 adults in the UK found that only 33 per cent of people questioned identified a cough as a warning sign or symptom of lung cancer, while as few as a further 11 per cent specifically mentioned a “persistent cough”, which is a key symptom.

In the UK, lung cancer is the second most common cancer in men, after prostate cancer, and also the second most common in women, after breast cancer. It accounts for more than 1 in 5 cancer deaths, that is more than 35,200 people a year or 95 people a day.

Worldwide, lung cancer is the most common cancer: in 2008 it is estimated that 1.6 million new cases were diagnosed and 1.38 million people died of the disease.

However, early detection of lung cancer can save lives, says Graham Phillips, who is a community pharmacist and Board member of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

“When symptoms are present and recognised at an early stage, treatment is much more likely to be successful,” he added, which is why the Society is trying to get people to realize the importance of getting a persistent cough checked out.

When people get a cough that won’t clear up, they tend to buy cough medicines, or even iron tablets if they also find themselves feeling tired and low in energy.

Phillips urges people to talk to their pharmacist if they find themselves doing this.

“We can discuss your symptoms with you and help you understand you may have an underlying problem that needs checking out with your GP,” he explained in a press statement.

Phillips said pharmacists have an important role to play in helping to spot the early signs of lung cancer and other serious lung problems.

This role appears to be welcome by the public too, because nearly 4 out 5 people surveyed said they would like their local pharmacists to talk to them if they were showing any signs of lung cancer before they had noticed them, and over 9 out of 10 acknowledged that catching the disease in the early stages is important to ensure treatment is effective.

Phillips said whatever the time of year, if you have symptoms of cold or flu that won’t go away, such as a persistent cough, chest infection, or keep losing your voice, or you feel breathless, tired and lacking in energy, then instead of reaching for the over-the-counter remedy, you should ask your pharmacist’s advice.

  • A cough that does not clear and persists for more than three weeks.
  • A long-standing cough that gets worse or changes.
  • Persistent or repeated chest infections.
  • Persistent and unexplained breathlessness.
  • Coughing up blood, or blood in the phlegm.
  • Feeling tired or lacking in energy for no apparent reason.
  • Unexplained and persistent weight loss.
  • Persistent pain in the chest and/or shoulder.
  • Persistent and unexplained hoarseness or loss of voice.
  • Unexplained swelling of the face or neck.

  1. Myth: coughing up blood is usually the earliest sign of lung cancer.
    Fact: the first symptoms of lung cancer are often a persistent cough or persistent breathlessness.
  2. Myth: if you smoke there is no point in giving up because the damage is already done.
    Fact: as soon as you quit you are already starting to reduce your risk of developing lung cancer and other serious health problems like stroke or heart attack, and giving up before you hit middle age avoids most of the risk of smoking-related lung cancer.
  3. Myth: lung cancer is predominantly a male disease.
    Fact: while this may have true in the 1950s, when there was only 1 female case of lung cancer for every 6 male cases, nowadays the ratio is 3 cases of lung cancer in women to every 4 cases in men.
  4. Myth: lung cancer is a death sentence.
    Fact: over three quarters of lung cancer cases are diagnosed at an advanced stage: when it is found early, the treatment is 40 times more likely to be successful.
  5. Myth: only smokers get lung cancer.
    Fact: 1 in 10 cases of lung cancer are not linked to smoking.

The Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation is working with the Royal Pharmaceutical Society to promote lung cancer awareness. The Foundation’s Medical Director, Dr Jesme Fox, said:

“Pharmacy staff can play a key role in the fight against lung cancer and we hope this campaign will help to increase early detection of the disease as this can save lives.”

While most medical professionals would agree that a persistent cough should be checked out, many would say that other problems were more likely to be the cause, not necessarily cancer.

One of these is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a progressive, irreversible lung disease that kills about 30,000 people a year in the UK: more than breast, bowel or prostate cancer.

COPD is an umbrella term for a number of conditions, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Every year the British Lung Foundation focuses its campaigning around World COPD Day, which this year was on 17 November.

Their chief executive, Dame Helena Shovelton, told the BBC that while a persistent cough can be an early sign of lung cancer, it can also be a sign of COPD.

She said their research shows that 28 per cent of smokers would class their cough as just a “smoker’s cough”, and that nearly 3.5 million people in the UK are at high risk of developing COPD and similar lung conditions.

“We would urge anyone with symptoms such as nasty cough, wheezy chest or breathlessness to ask their GP for a lung function test or to take our online breath test,” said Shovelton.

— Take the BLF Breath Test

Source: Royal Pharmaceutical Society, Cancer Research UK, British Lung Foundation, BBC.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD