Allergies, Lung Cancer, and Mesothelioma – Similar Symptoms Can Lead to Misdiagnosis
Mesothelioma or lung cancer is a devastating diagnosis. But, the earlier the correct diagnosis is made, the better a patient’s chances are of having treatment options and of those treatments being successful. Late diagnoses of mesothelioma in particular are common because the cancer is rare and its symptoms are similar to other, more common illnesses.
Both lung cancer and mesothelioma can cause symptoms that are similar to something much more benign: allergies. Allergies are immune system responses to common substances, like pollen. They can trigger symptoms, like a persistent cough, that may be very similar to those seen with cancers of the lung tissue. If you have persistent or worsening allergies, and especially if you may have ever been exposed to asbestos, talk to your doctor about the possibility of cancer.
Mesothelioma is the cancer of the mesothelium, a tissue layer that is found in the abdomen, around the heart, and around the lungs. The most common form of mesothelioma, pleural mesothelioma, attacks the tissue around the lungs and is most often caused by asbestos exposure. This cancer is rare, so it is often misdiagnosed as pneumonia, or even lung cancer. Symptoms of pleural mesothelioma include:
- A persistent, dry cough.
- Wheezing or shortness of breath.
- 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, and because it is more common, is sometimes made as a misdiagnosis. However, many people do have lung cancer, and the symptoms can vary and often be very similar to those caused by common allergies, like hay fever:
- 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 is one of the most common medical conditions in the world. An allergy is a reaction of the immune system. Normally triggered to fend off pathogens, like viruses, sometimes the immune system attacks something that is benign, like a protein in peanuts or in pollen. The substance, called an allergen, triggers an overreaction by the immune system, which produces antibodies. These then cause cells to release chemicals, including histamine, that cause the characteristic symptoms of an allergic reaction.
The symptoms vary to a degree by the type of allergen. Those that cause respiratory symptoms similar to the symptoms of mesothelioma and lung cancer include the substances that trigger hay fever, typically pollen. The medical term for hay fever, which usually occurs in spring and fall, is allergic rhinitis. Allergies to drugs and insect stings may also cause similar symptoms. Some of the possible symptoms include:
- A runny or stuffy nose.
- Watery, red, itchy eyes.
- Itchiness in the mouth and nose.
- Wheezing and shortness of breath.
In extreme situations, an allergen may trigger a severe reaction called anaphylaxis. This is a deadly reaction that requires 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. It is related to allergies, although exactly how is still unknown. In some people, asthma may be triggered by a known allergen, while in others there is no identified trigger. Like allergies, it causes symptoms that may be similar to certain types of cancers. It can also range from mild to moderate to severe and life-threatening. Mostly, asthma causes tightness in the chest, chest pains, shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing, difficulty breathing.
Duration and Intensity of Symptoms May Be Clues
It is clear that there are symptoms in common between allergies and asthma and mesothelioma and lung cancer. Because allergies and asthma are much more common, it is easy to overlook the symptoms and to dismiss them as persistent but benign chronic conditions. The risk of missing cancer because of these symptom similarities is especially high in anyone who has asthma or allergies. If you always get hay fever in the spring, for instance, you may not realize that your symptoms are actually being caused or worsened by lung cancer or mesothelioma.
One clue that may help determine something isn’t right and that your symptoms are more than just typical allergies is the duration. If you normally get hay fever, but this year your symptoms persist much longer than normal, it could be cause for concern. Another clue is intensity. If your symptoms become more severe than usual or if they are slightly different from what you usually experience with allergies, you may have another underlying condition, like cancer.
If symptoms are caused by cancer, they will get progressively worse, while those caused by allergies should get better or come and go with the seasons or exposure to allergens. Taking an antihistamine should also provide some relief from symptoms if they are triggered by allergens. Allergies are also unlikely to cause some of the other symptoms of cancer, like chest pains and weight loss.
Having Allergies May Actually Provide Protection against Lung Cancer
There is one positive reason to associated lung cancer with allergies. For reasons that are not understood, research has shown that people with allergies are less likely to develop cancer of various types, including lung cancer. Studies have found this link to be true with asthma, hay fever, and a skin condition related to allergies known as eczema. Other studies have found that people with certain types of cancer have lower rates of allergies, including hay fever. No one knows yet why this connection exists, but it is good news for those who suffer from allergic symptoms.
Allergies are common and most often cause no more than nuisance symptoms. However, cancer is deadly and should be taken very seriously. If you have any doubts that your symptoms are caused by allergies, talk to your doctor. It is better to get screened for cancer and to have an overall examination to determine the cause of the symptoms than to get a late diagnosis of cancer. If there is any chance you could have been exposed to asbestos, for instance at work, don’t wait for symptoms. See your doctor and get screened for lung cancer and mesothelioma.
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