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Lung Cancer, COPD, or Emphysema? How to Tell

Because many diseases share the same symptoms, one can often disguise another, making their diagnosis and treatment more difficult. Unraveling the tangled knot of symptoms that are shared between emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer can be particularly challenging, but also critically important. That’s because the symptoms of emphysema can easily conceal COPD, and COPD can conceal the presence of lung cancer.

Although slipping from emphysema to COPD is usually not a drastic decline in health, early detection of lung cancer is critical for increasing your treatment options and improving your prognosis. Below you can learn everything you need to know about the differences between these illnesses, and how you can spot red flag symptoms early on.

COPD vs. Emphysema

COPD is actually an umbrella term to describe people who suffer from both chronic bronchitis and emphysema. While it’s possible to suffer from just one or the other, those with COPD present with a combination of symptoms of both.  Having both diseases is common because they typically develop together, producing very similar symptoms. As bronchitis causes the airways to swell up, reducing the size of passages for air, emphysema exasperates this problem by reducing the elasticity of our lungs, making it more difficult to expel carbon dioxide and inhale fresh oxygen.

The symptoms of emphysema include chronic cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle weakness, difficulty sleeping, unintentional weight loss, chest discomfort, and anxiety. Although bronchitis also causes many of these symptoms, it also produces a variety of differently-colored mucus, and a mild fever. If you have either of these symptoms in addition to emphysema, it’s probable that you also suffer from bronchitis and therefore COPD.

Lung Cancer and COPD

Like with the relationship between emphysema and COPD, there’s an intimate relationship between COPD and lung cancer. This is because all three conditions share similar risk factors and even many of the same symptoms. In fact, apart from smoking, suffering from COPD is the leading risk factor for lung cancer, with more than half of all lung cancer patients suffering from preexisting COPD. That’s why it’s critical for anyone who suffers from COPD to be vigilant about monitoring their health for the appearance of lung cancer.

Some of the signs of lung cancer include changes to the voice, especially when they cause it to sound hoarse. It’s common to find harsh sounds while breathing, coughing up blood, or blood in your mucus. Lung cancer also manifests many symptoms outside of the lungs, including blood clots, bleeding, facial swelling, memory loss, bone fractures, joint pain, headaches, and muscle wasting. If you suffer from COPD and you have any of these symptoms, it would be prudent to consult your doctor.

Ask Your Doctor

Many conditions — such as a common cold — can be safely diagnosed at home without the use of a doctor. This does not include emphysema, COPD, and lung cancer. You should always check with your doctor, especially if you believe you or your loved ones may be experiencing early symptoms of lung cancer. When it comes to cancer, early detection can often make all the difference.