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Allergies, Lung Cancer, and Mesothelioma – Similar Symptoms Can Lead to Misdiagnosis

Receiving a diagnosis of mesothelioma or lung cancer can be devastating. However, early diagnosis means better chances of having successful treatment options. Late diagnoses of mesothelioma in particular are common. This is due to the rarity of the cancer. Mesothelioma also shares symptoms of more common illnesses.

Both lung cancer and mesothelioma can cause symptoms similar to something more benign: allergies. Allergies are the immune system response to exposure to common substances like pollen, dust, and mold spores. Exposure to these substances can trigger allergy symptoms including persistent cough. This persistent cough may be similar to those seen with cancers of the lung tissue. If allergies persist or worsen, especially if you may have ever been exposed to asbestos, discuss the possibility of cancer with your medical care provider.

Mesothelioma Symptoms

Mesothelioma is the cancer of the mesothelium, a tissue layer found in the abdomen an around the heart and lungs. The most common form of mesothelioma, pleural mesothelioma, attacks the tissue around the lungs. Exposure to asbestos is the most common cause of this type of mesothelioma. This cancer is rare and is often misdiagnosed as pneumonia or lung cancer. Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include:

  • A persistent, dry cough.
  • Wheezing or shortness of breath.
  • Hoarseness
  • Fatigue.
  • Chest pains or pains in the side or lower back.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Unexpected weight loss.

Lung Cancer Symptoms

Lung cancer has symptoms that may be similar to those of mesothelioma. Because lung cancer is more common than mesothelioma, it can lead to misdiagnosis. Symptoms of lung cancer can vary and are often similar to symptoms triggered by common allergies. These symptoms include:

  • A persistent cough.
  • A cough that may bring up phlegm or blood, that is intense or worsens with time.
  • Chest and back pains.
  • Shortness of breath, wheezing.
  • Stridor, or harsh sounds emitted when breathing.
  • Recurrent infections like bronchitis or pneumonia.

Allergy Symptoms

Allergies are some of the most common medical conditions in the world. Allergies are a reaction of the immune system. Pathogens like viruses and bacteria typically trigger your immune system into action. However, sometimes the immune system attacks something benign, like a protein in peanuts or in pollen. Common allergens trigger an overreaction by the immune system, causing the body to produce antibodies. These then cause cells to release histamines that cause characteristic symptoms of an allergic reaction.

The type and severity of symptoms vary  by the allergen type. Allergens that cause respiratory symptoms similar to those of mesothelioma and lung cancer include substances that trigger hay fever. The medical term for hay fever, which usually occurs in spring and fall, is allergic rhinitis. Allergies to drugs and insect stings may also trigger similar symptoms. Some common allergy symptoms include:

  • Runny or stuffy nose.
  • Sneezing.
  • Watery, red, itchy eyes.
  • Itchiness in the mouth and nose.
  • Coughing.
  • Wheezing and shortness of breath.

In extreme situations, an allergen may trigger a severe reaction called anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a deadly reaction requiring immediate emergency medical care. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include swelling in the airways, face, and mouth, difficulty breathing, wheezing, low blood pressure, weak pulse, nausea, and loss of consciousness.


Asthma is also a chronic and fairly common condition. It occurs when the airways narrow, swell, and make breathing difficult. Asthma is related to allergies, although exactly how is still unknown. For some, asthma may be triggered by a known allergen. In others there is no identified trigger. Like allergies, asthma causes symptoms similar to certain types of cancers.  Severity of asthma range from mild to life-threatening. The most common asthma symptoms are chest tightness or pain, shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and difficulty breathing.

Duration and Intensity of Symptoms May Be Clues

Allergies, asthma, mesothelioma, and lung cancer share some common symptoms. Because allergies and asthma are more common, medical professionals may overlook symptoms, dismissing them as persistent but benign chronic conditions. The risk of missing cancer due to symptom similarities is high particularly for individuals who already suffer from asthma or allergies. For example, if you typically suffer from hay fever in the spring, you may not realize your symptoms are actually being caused by lung cancer or mesothelioma.

If your symptoms persist longer than your typical allergies, it could be a clue that you are suffering from something more serious. Also, if your symptoms seem more intense or severe, or if they differ even slightly, you may have another underlying condition, like cancer or mesothelioma.

If the source of your symptoms is cancer, they will progressively worsen. However, if they are caused by typical allergies, they should come and go with exposure to allergens. Taking an antihistamine will provide some relief from symptoms triggered by common allergens. Also, if you experience severe symptoms like chest pains or weight loss, they are unlikely to be caused by allergies. If you experience these symptoms, you should discuss them with your doctor immediately.

Having Allergies May Actually Provide Protection against Lung Cancer

While allergies may be inconvenient, there are positive aspects. For reasons not completely understood, people who suffer from common allergies are less likely to develop cancer of various types, including lung cancer. Research points to a link to resistance with asthma, hay fever, and a skin condition related to allergies known as eczema. Other studies show people with certain types of cancer have lower rates of allergies, including hay fever. Science does not yet understand why this connection exists. However, it is good news for those who suffer from common allergies.

Allergies are common, but symptoms are typically more inconvenient than they are dangerous. However, cancer is deadly and should be taken very seriously. Talk to your doctor if you have doubts your symptoms are triggered by allergies. Screening for cancer to determine the cause of symptoms can help prevent a possible late cancer diagnosis. If there is any chance you have been exposed to asbestos, for instance at work, don’t wait for symptoms. See your doctor for lung cancer and mesothelioma testing.

Page Edited by Dave Foster

Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available. Connect with Patient Advocate Dave Foster

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