5 Signs Your Lungs Aren't as Healthy as You Think

Learn the warning signs of lung problems and when to see a doctor.

Kacie Goff Contributor
Kacie is a contributor to CNET.
Kacie Goff
Medically Reviewed
Reviewed by: Troy Mensen, DO Medical Reviewer
Dr. Troy Mensen is a family medicine doctor based in the Chicago area. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Northern Iowa and his doctorate at Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Expertise Family medicine Credentials
  • American Board of Family Medicine, Family Medicine
  • State of Illinois, Medical Examining Board License
  • University of Northern Iowa, BA
  • Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine, DO
4 min read
A person holds a collaged model of lungs.
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During Healthy Lung Month and the cold part of the year, you might be thinking a little more than normal about the way you breathe. But during any part of the year, we all need to get oxygen to live. That means that lung health checks matter — and get especially important if you smoke or vape

In fact, since a wide variety of conditions can affect your lungs, it's worth continually monitoring them. Across the world, more than 260 million people live with asthma. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, kills an American every four minutes. Clearly, lung health conditions are both common and serious. 

Fortunately, getting treatment early can make a huge difference. When you know the signs of a potential problem, you can monitor your lung health at home — and seek help when you need it. 

Signs of lung problems

A person in a sweater clutches their chest.
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Take a deep breath right now. Does it feel like you're getting enough oxygen from your inhale?

That's just a quick check-in. Fortunately, you can do more at-home work to figure out the state of your lung health. Specifically, keep an eye out for these warning signs of an underlying respiratory problem, courtesy of the American Lung Association. 

Shortness of breath

Imagine breathing through a paper towel roll. No problem, right? Now imagine breathing through a straw. That's a little more stressful. Then swap that straw for a cocktail straw. Panicked yet? 

It sounds horrifying, but this can happen in your body as your airways narrow. Turns out, this is more than just a COVID symptom. Trouble getting a full breath — especially if it's not triggered by extraneous exercise — could mean you have a serious lung health problem like:

  • Asthma
  • Chronic lung disease, including COPD
  • Heart disease 
  • A blood clot in your lungs

That said, shortness of breath could also mean you're out of shape. Get moving on a regular basis. That way, you'll be able to tell if your shortness of breath indicates a health concern. When you're generally physically active, you shouldn't have trouble breathing. If you do, it could be a signal that something's wrong. 

A person coughing while in bed.
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A persistent cough

Your body uses coughing to get rid of things it doesn't want, like irritants or mucus. An occasional cough probably just means you inhaled too much dust or a germ your body wanted to kick quickly.

A cough that lingers, though, warrants some attention. While it could be allergies or gastro-esophageal reflux (GERD), it could also be caused by:

  • A respiratory tract infection (e.g., bronchitis, pneumonia)
  • COPD
  • A blood clot in your lungs
  • A collapsed lung (this usually comes with chest pain and shortness of breath, too)
  • Heart failure

If your cough lasts more than eight weeks, even if it's dry, you should see a medical professional. 

A productive cough

If your cough is productive — meaning you cough up mucus, phlegm or blood — it's a possible cause for concern. 

The first time you see blood from a cough, schedule an appointment with a doctor. 

If you cough up mucus or phlegm, monitor yourself. If it's thick and greenish-yellow, it warrants a trip to the doctor. That's doubly true if it comes with other symptoms like trouble breathing, fever or ankle swelling. 

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It might sound like a rattling or a whistling. Either way, it's clear that your airways can't work the way they should. In other words, wheezing likely indicates a lung health problem. 

While some easily treated respiratory infections cause wheezing, asthma and COPD commonly cause this symptom, too. If your wheezing comes with difficulty breathing, rapid breathing or blueish skin, seek emergency care immediately.  

Chest pain

Chest pain — which medical professionals call angina — usually stems from a heart problem. 

That doesn't mean your lungs are off the hook, though. Angina often comes from the heart not getting enough oxygen supply. Heart conditions like coronary artery disease or coronary microvascular disease can cause this, but so can lung health issues like a blood clot or infection. 

What to do if you're worried

Doctors working and talking.
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If you have the signs of lung health problems we just outlined, have a conversation with your doctor. At their office, they can use diagnostic tools like stress tests, X-rays and lab tests to figure out what's going on with your lungs. From there, you can develop an appropriate treatment plan. 

In some cases, lifestyle changes like more exercise, quitting smoking and adopting a lung-healthy diet may be enough, especially when paired with ongoing monitoring

In others, you may need medication. Both asthma and COPD generally respond well to inhalers. Having one can make it easier for you to get the oxygen you need to feel good as you go about your day. 

Ultimately, your lung health matters. Don't wait to see a medical professional if you have any concerns at all. 

Be ready to act fast in an emergency, too. Call 911 if you suddenly experience shortness of breath, coughing and/or wheezing along with any of these symptoms:

  • Swelling in your ankles and feet
  • Fever and chills
  • Difficulty breathing when you lie down
  • Blue-looking skin
  • Loss of mental alertness
  • Nausea
  • Fainting

That could indicate a blood clot in your lungs or a heart attack. 

Your lungs play a critical role in your body. They need your attention and, in some cases, your proactive care. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.