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3 Common Symptoms That Could Signal a More Serious Lung Condition

Many folks who engage in regular, rigorous exercise pride themselves on being able to push through the pain. Surely we’ve all experienced shortness of breath or a lingering cough, but for some, this could indicate a bigger issue for their lung health. However, we also know that these symptoms exist on a spectrum of sorts, ranging from a slightly burdensome throat tickle to a nagging, just-can’t-beat-it hack.

To find out when these symptoms warrant a physician’s practiced eye, we’ve consulted Penn Medicine pulmonologist Judd Flesch, MD. Here, he explains the three symptoms that might indicate lung trouble and when to know if it’s serious:

Shortness of breath

“Shortness of breath is a symptom that everyone experiences. Vigorous exercise will make even the most fit athletes feel short of breath, and those who don’t exercise regularly can feel short of breath with moderate or even mild exertion, such as walking quickly or for long periods of time.

“Shortness of breath is also a common symptom of lung disease, and it can be difficult to notice because it often develops slowly over time. Some signs that your shortness of breath could indicate a lung problem are:

1. You are short of breath at rest (when you are sitting and reading or watching television) or with minimal effort (walking around your house or apartment).

2. The amount you can exercise has decreased over time because you are feeling short of breath.  For example, if you are short of breath and need to rest after walking 3 or 4 blocks, but could walk for much longer one year ago, you may be developing lung disease.

If you are concerned about your breathing, discuss it with your doctor.


A cough is another symptom that everyone experiences on occasion, and most of the time it is a normal part of a common cold and goes away on its own. A cough can last a long time — up to eight weeks — after a cold or upper respiratory infection.

“If cough lasts longer than eight weeks, it is considered a chronic cough. There are several common and treatable forms of chronic cough. Smoking can cause a cough without any other lung disease. Postnasal drip, often from seasonal allergies, is another common cause. Acid reflux, even without symptoms or heartburn, also causes chronic cough.

“I recommend seeing your doctor anytime your cough lasts longer than eight weeks. If you have a cough with fever, shortness of breath, chest pain, or blood in your mucus, you should call your doctor right away, regardless of how long you’ve had the cough.


“Wheezing is a “musical” sound that can occur during breathing. Wheezing is common, but unlike cough and shortness of breath, it is never normal even with exercise or a common cold. Asthma and COPD (also known as emphysema) are common causes of wheezing, but there are other possible reasons that your physician can address.

“If you do not have asthma or COPD and you notice wheezing, you should see your doctor.  If wheezing starts suddenly, if you develop hives, or if you feel short of breath with wheezing, you should go to the emergency room, as it may indicate a severe allergic reaction. If you have a wheeze that develops more slowly and does not affect your breathing very much, you can consult your doctor.

For more information about finding a Penn Medicine specialist, visit the Tops Doctors homepage.