Lung cancer symptoms: The shape of your nails could be a warning sign of the disease

Lung cancer is considered one of the most serious types of cancer, with around 47,000 people diagnosed with it every year in the UK. There are usually no signs in the early stages, but when people eventually develop symptoms, one of the most recognised signs is a persistent cough. Coughing up blood and pain when coughing are other signs linked to lung cancer, but not all symptoms are associated with a person’s lungs.


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Three out of 10 people with non small cell lung cancer may develop finger clubbing, which means specific changes in the shape of a person’s fingers and fingernails.

And one change to look out for is Scarmouth’s sign – when the nails curve more than normal when looked at from the side.

Finger clubbing tends to happen in stages, according to Cancer Research UK.

Before Scarmouth’s sign develops, the base of the nail (nail bed) becomes soft and the skin next to the nail bed becomes shiny.

After Scarmouth’s sign, the end of the fingers may get larger, which is often referred to as drumstick fingers.

In the latest stages of finger clubbing, extra areas of bone might form on the finger joints, wrists and ankles.

Cancer Research UK warns: “This is sometimes mistaken for arthritis and is called hypertrophic pulmonary osteoarthropathy (HPOA).”

Finger clubbing is though to be caused by fluid collecting in the soft tissues at the ends of the fingers.

The cancer charity explains: “This is caused by more blood flowing to the area than usual. But we don’t fully understand why this happens.

“It may be due to the tumour producing particular chemicals or hormones (this is called a paraneoplastic syndrome).”

Other symptoms of lung cancer

The NHS lists the symptoms of lung cancer as:

  • A cough that doesn’t go away after 2 or 3 weeks
  • A long-standing cough that gets worse
  • Chest infections that keep coming back
  • Coughing up blood
  • An ache or pain when breathing or coughing
  • Persistent breathlessness
  • Persistent tiredness or lack of energy
  • Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss

If you experience any of these you should see a GP.


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Less common symptoms include:

  • Changes in the appearance of your fingers, such as becoming more curved or their ends becoming larger (this is known as finger clubbing)
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) or pain when swallowing
  • Wheezing
  • A hoarse voice
  • Swelling of your face or neck
  • Persistent chest or shoulder pain

How to prevent lung cancer

If you smoke, the best way to prevent lung cancer is stop smoking as soon as possible.

The NHS advises: “However long you have been smoking, it’s always worth quitting. Every year you do not smoke decreases your risk of getting serious illnesses, such as lung cancer.

“After 10 years of not smoking, your chances of developing lung cancer falls to half that of someone who smokes.”

A balanced diet and regular exercise can also help prevent lung cancer.

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