Lung Cancer vs. Pneumonia: What Are the Differences?

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It can be difficult to tell if you have pneumonia or lung cancer because they share similar symptoms. However, there are fundamental differences between the two.

To start, pneumonia is a chest infection that causes inflammation to the air sacs in the lungs. Lung cancer, on the other hand, occurs when cells grow out of control and form tumors.

Signs of lung cancer are hard to detect until it has reached a late stage, while pneumonia symptoms come on within a few days of contracting the infection. Symptoms common to both conditions include chest pain, a persistent cough, and fatigue.

This article will discuss the similarities and differences between pneumonia and lung cancer.

Pneumonia vs. Lung Cancer Symptoms

Verywell / Katie Kerpel

Symptoms

Pneumonia and lung cancer share overlapping symptoms, including:

  • A new cough that doesn’t go away
  • An increase in phlegm that could be green, yellow, rust colored, or bloody
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain that gets worse when you cough, breathe, or laugh
  • Loss of appetite
  • Low energy and fatigue

The main difference between these overlapping symptoms is their onset and progression. Lung cancer symptoms take a while to develop, which is why most lung cancer cases aren’t diagnosed until it has already spread to other parts of the body. Pneumonia, on the other hand, causes severe symptoms shortly after the infection begins.

Also, the two conditions have some distinct symptoms.

Pneumonia
  • Fever

  • Sweating

  • Shaking

  • Chills

  • Rapid and shallow breathing

  • Fatigue

  • Nausea and vomiting, especially in young children

  • Confusion, especially in older adults

Lung Cancer
  • Unexplained weight loss

  • Weakness

  • Recurrent lung infections

  • Wheezing

  • Bone pain

  • Headaches, dizziness, or balance issues

  • Numbness in the arms or legs

  • Seizures

  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (also known as jaundice)

  • Swollen lymph nodes

Causes

Although having pneumonia can increase the risk of developing lung cancer in some people, the two conditions are caused by different things.

Lung Cancer Causes

As many as 90% of all lung cancer cases are caused by smoking. The remaining 10% are caused by various factors such as:

  • Exposure to radon gas, asbestos, secondhand smoke, or air pollution 
  • A history of chronic infections

In rare cases, researchers believe that lung cancer could be tied to inherited genetic mutations or passed down through families.

Pneumonia Causes

Pneumonia is caused by bacteria, viruses, and fungi. The most common form of pneumonia, bacterial pneumonia, is typically caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae. However, it can also be caused by other types of bacteria, such as Mycoplasma pneumoniae, Chlamydophila pneumoniae, or Legionella pneumophila.

Viral pneumonia, the type that is caused by a virus, is the result of the common influenza virus in adults. In children, the virus that commonly causes viral pneumonia is the respiratory syncytial virus.

Fungal pneumonia isn’t as common. The types of fungi that can cause pneumonia include Coccidioidomycosis, Histoplasmosis, and Cryptococcus.

Pneumonia in Lung Cancer Patients 

Pneumonia in lung cancer is incredibly common. Research has found that of all patients battling lung cancer, as many as 70% will also have pneumonia.

Bacterial pneumonia is associated with a higher risk of lung cancer. Research found that people who have had pneumonia before were over three times as likely to develop lung cancer compared to people who never had pneumonia.

Research has also shown that when people have both diseases at the same time, their likelihood of survival decreases significantly. This can lead to complications, such as:

  • Lung abscess: A lung abscess occurs when dead lung tissue turns into a liquid, mainly pus. 
  • Empyema: Empyema occurs when pockets of pus start to collect in the space between the lungs and the chest cavity, otherwise known as the pleural cavity.
  • Fistula formation: A fistula is a hole or opening that can form between the bronchi—the large airways within the lungs—and the pleural cavity.

Pneumonia is the second leading cause of death in lung cancer patients.

Do All Lung Cancer Patients Die If They Get Pneumonia?

Although pneumonia can increase the risk of death among lung cancer patients, it does not mean that all people with both conditions will die. If you are receiving treatment for lung cancer and develop pneumonia, it’s important to stay hydrated and take care of your body to help recover from the chest infection while your cancer treatment continues.

Diagnosis

Diagnosing lung cancer and pneumonia requires different processes, even though the two often share similar symptoms.

Pneumonia Diagnosis

Diagnosing pneumonia typically involves a physical exam to assess abnormal breathing, fever, and swollen glands. A sample of phlegm will be taken and tested to help figure out the source of the infection.

A chest X-ray will likely be performed as well. Chest X-rays take pictures of the lungs, which help determine if there is an abnormal buildup of fluid or pus in the lungs.

A blood test will also be done to help identify whether your pneumonia is caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. Knowing this can help your doctor determine the best treatment.

Lung Cancer Diagnosis

To diagnose lung cancer, your doctor will perform a physical exam and order a chest X-ray to look at your lungs. A computerized tomography (CT) scan will also be ordered if cancer is suspected. This type of scan can better visualize tumors, their size and shape, and their location in the lungs.

A biopsy—which is a procedure where a piece of tissue where cancer is suspected is removed and tested—is used to confirm that cancer cells are present in the tumors.

Lung Cancer Doctor Discussion Guide

Doctor Discussion Guide Old Man

To see whether the cancer has spread, you doctor will order an MRI of the brain and a PET scan, which is similar to a CT scan but offers a more detailed picture of the lungs and other areas of the body where cancer may have spread.

Frequent bouts of pneumonia or bronchitis can be a sign of lung cancer, and early diagnosis and treatment is a crucial part of surviving lung cancer.

Treatment

Getting a proper diagnosis for pneumonia or lung cancer is crucial because the treatments for the two conditions are very different.

Lung Cancer Treatment

Various factors need to be taken into account when determining a treatment plan, such as the type of lung cancer you have, whether it has spread, and your overall health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are four main treatment options for lung cancer. They include:

  • Surgery: If cancer in the lungs is contained, surgery may be an option. During surgery, the cancerous tissue is cut out of the body.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy refers to the medications designed to kill cancer cells. This type of treatment is often used in combination with other therapies to improve the patient’s chances of survival in cases where cancer has spread to other areas of the body.
  • Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy uses radiation to kill or control the growth of cancer cells. The specific types of radiation, or energy, used in cancer treatments are X-rays, gamma rays, electron beams, and protons. High doses are targeted at cancer cells, which causes chemical changes in the cells and leads to DNA damage. This prevents cancer cells from replicating.
  • Targeted therapy: Targeted therapy uses medications to stop a cancer cell from making copies of itself. Although it is similar to chemotherapy, targeted therapy drugs act only on specific cancer cells, as opposed to all cells that are dividing rapidly. 
  • Immunotherapy: This works by using medications to trigger the immune system to help get rid of cancer cells.

Pneumonia Treatment

Treatment for pneumonia depends on how serious the condition is. In some cases, pneumonia will clear up on its own. Some home remedies for mild cases include:

  • Controlling fever and inflammation with over-the-counter medications
  • Drinking a lot of fluids and warm beverages
  • Taking baths or using a humidifier to open your airways
  • Getting a lot of rest

A case of bacterial pneumonia will be treated using an antibiotic, such as azithromycin. In people with other chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, other antibiotics such as fluoroquinolone may be used because there is a chance that the bacteria causing their pneumonia may be resistant to other types of antibiotic.

When to Call a Doctor for Pneumonia

If you were recently diagnosed with a mild case of pneumonia but are not getting better or are experiencing worsened symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible. In some cases, pneumonia can get worse and complications can occur that require hospitalization.

Research has shown that corticosteroids, which are drugs designed to reduce inflammation, can also be used to treat pneumonia. They are helpful for decreasing the risk of death and the need for more serious medical interventions, such as ventilators or prolonged hospitalization in people who have more serious cases of infection.

If you are hospitalized, you are given medications through an IV directly into your bloodstream. You may also need help breathing, so oxygen therapy will be used. You could be given oxygen through a face mask, your nose, or another piece of medical equipment such as a ventilator.

A Word From Verywell

Being diagnosed with lung cancer or having a more severe case of pneumonia can be difficult to accept, but with the right treatment, both conditions can be managed. If you are helping a loved one cope with lung cancer, you can be sympathetic to their condition and ensure that they are staying hydrated and doing all they can to live as healthily as possible while they undergo treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can pneumonia be mistaken for lung cancer? 

Since the two conditions share similar symptoms, it’s possible for pneumonia to be mistaken for lung cancer. This is especially true if someone is experiencing frequent bouts of pneumonia. This is because recurring chest infections are often a sign of lung cancer.

How common is pneumonia with lung cancer? 

Pneumonia and lung cancer are often experienced at the same time. Research has found that roughly 50% to 70% of people with lung cancer will experience pneumonia at some point during the course of their disease. Having pneumonia while battling lung cancer also increases the risk of severe or life-threatening consequences.

Does pneumonia show up on a test for lung cancer? 

Pneumonia and lung cancer often go through the same tests. However, the tests typically done for pneumonia are only preliminary diagnostic tools when it comes to testing for lung cancer. Because of this, pneumonia will likely be diagnosed prior to a person having the more intricate tests for lung cancer.

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