Controlling symptoms of lung cancer

Lung cancer can cause symptoms such as breathlessness, a cough, pain or feeling drowsy. Treatment is available to help relieve these symptoms. Doctors and nurses who specialise in symptom control can help you.

One of the most common symptoms of lung cancer is breathlessness. This can be distressing but treatment can improve it. Drugs and breathing exercises can help relieve the symptom. If the cancer presses on the airways and makes it difficult to breathe, doctors can put a stent in the airway to help open it.

Sometimes, fluid can build up between the layers protecting the lungs (pleural effusion). This can cause breathlessness. Your doctor may drain the fluid with a needle attached to a tube into a drainage bag.

Lung cancer can cause you to cough. This can usually be improved with medicines. Sometimes radiotherapy is used to help relieve a persistent cough. Always tell your healthcare team if you have any pain. They will be able to give you painkillers to treat it.

The tumour can sometimes press on a vein that brings blood to the heart (vena cava). This needs to be treated quickly and the treatment will depend on your situation. Options include radiotherapy, chemotherapy or a stent.

Treatment to control symptoms

Some people may have ongoing symptoms, such as breathlessness or a cough, or may develop new symptoms during their illness. Treatment with chemotherapy and radiotherapy can help to relieve symptoms but there are also other ways to manage and control symptoms.

You may be referred to a doctor or nurse who is an expert in symptom control. They’re sometimes called palliative care experts.

If you have any new symptoms, always tell your doctor or cancer nurse straight away. Some lung cancers produce hormones or antibodies that upset the body’s chemical balance. These may cause symptoms such as feeling sick, being sick or feeling very drowsy.


Breathlessness is a common symptom in people with lung cancer. It can be distressing to deal with, but there are treatments) and drugs that can help to relieve or manage it. Breathing and relaxation exercises can also help make living with breathlessness easier. Some people find complementary therapies helpful.

We have more information on cancer and complementary therapies

Stents for breathlessness

If the cancer presses on the airway, it can become narrow. A small tube called a stent can be used to open up the airway to help you breathe more easily. You usually have a stent put in under a general anaesthetic.

The doctor places the stent inside the airway using a bronchoscope. The stent is folded flat when it’s first inserted, and as it comes out of the bronchoscope, it opens up like an umbrella. This pushes the walls of the narrowed airway open. It can stay in your lung permanently.

Superior vena cava obstruction (SVCO)

If the cancer presses on a vein in the chest (the vena cava) that carries blood to the heart, it may block the blood flow. This is called superior vena cava obstruction (SVCO).

SVCO can cause breathlessness, a feeling of fullness in the face and swelling in the face, neck and chest. It needs to be treated quickly. You’ll be given oxygen and drugs to relieve the symptoms.

The treatment you have will depend on your situation. Doctors may use radiotherapy to shrink the tumour and relieve the symptoms. Some people have chemotherapy, or they have a stent inserted into the vein to help the blood flow through it.

We have more information about superior vena cava obstruction (SVCO).


There are different treatments that can help a cough. Some types of painkiller tablets can help. Other drugs can be given as a vapour that you inhale. A short course of radiotherapy can also help to improve a cough.

Pleural effusion

Cancer in the lung can cause fluid to build up between the layers that cover the lung (pleura. This is called pleural effusion. Your doctor may insert a needle (cannula) into the area attached to a tube that drains the fluid into a drainage bag or bottle.

Sometimes, it’s possible to try to seal the two layers of the pleura together. Doctors use talc mixed with saline (sterile salt water) and infuse it through a small tube into the space between the two layers, which helps them stick together. This is called pleurodesis.

We have more information about pleural effusion.


If you have pain, it’s important to tell your doctors and nurses so they can treat it. There are many different ways to control pain. Your doctor or specialist nurse can explain the best way to manage the pain in your situation.

Painkiller drugs can be taken by mouth, as an injection or sometimes as a continuous infusion through a small electrical pump.

If you have cancer that has spread to your bones and it causes you pain, you may be given bone-strengthening drugs called bisphosphonates. We have information about different bisphosphonate drugs.

Radiotherapy may sometimes be given in a short course for a few days to help bone pain.

We have more information about how to manage pain.

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