Skip to main content

Can You Get Lung Cancer if You Don’t Smoke?

Read Time: 3 minutes

Diagram of lungs; left side is healthy, right side has cancer

People who smoke tobacco have the greatest risk for lung cancer. But people who have never smoked can also get lung cancer. Most cancers cannot be pinned down to one cause. In almost every person with lung cancer, several risk factors are at play.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States and in Utah for both men and women. It claims more lives every year than colon, prostate, ovarian, and breast cancers combined. Learn the risks for non-smokers so you can take action to prevent lung cancer or reduce your risk.

What are the lung cancer risk factors for non-smokers?

These things can increase your risk of lung cancer, even in people who have never smoked.

  • Air pollution. Low-quality air days and ongoing exposure to diesel fumes, smog, and fire smoke can raise your cancer risk. The World Health Organization (WHO) says air pollution is the most important environmental cause of cancer. WHO includes air pollution in the same dangerous category as asbestos and radon.
  • Second-hand smoke. When living or working with cigarette smokers, non-smokers breathe the same cancer-causing chemicals as the smokers do. This raises lung cancer risk in non-smokers by 25%. Second-hand smoke exposures could date back to childhood.
  • Radon. This radioactive gas is invisible, odorless, and tasteless, and it increases lung cancer risk. In the Mountain West, many homes have radon gas at dangerous levels. Home radon tests are inexpensive, and there are ways to remedy the radon levels. Learn more about how to test your home for radon.
  • Asbestos and other substances. Asbestos is a mineral used in many industries. It’s made of tiny, easy-to-inhale fibers. People who have worked in shipbuilding, brake repair, insulation, plumbing, and construction can be exposed to asbestos. Breathing in asbestos and other substances such as arsenic, chromium, nickel, soot, and tar can increase lung cancer risk.
  • A history of other lung diseases. Having other lung diseases such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, tuberculosis, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or a personal or family history of lung or other cancers also add to lung cancer risk for non-smokers.

How can non-smokers reduce lung cancer risk?

Some factors cannot be changed, such as existing lung disease, prior cancers, and a family history of lung cancer. But you can still take steps to lower your risk.

What are the signs of lung cancer?

Lung cancer can grow for years without causing symptoms. For this reason, it is often not diagnosed until it is at an advanced stage. Talk to your doctor if you have any of these signs:

  • Chest discomfort or pain
  • A cough that won’t go away
  • Ongoing upper respiratory infections
  • Wheezing or trouble breathing
  • Blood in your sputum
  • Hoarseness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Extreme tiredness

You may have these symptoms and not have lung cancer. Know your body and watch for unusual changes. Talk with your doctor at a check-up if you have any lung cancer risk factors, even if you don’t feel any symptoms. If you do get lung cancer, this may help you and your doctor find it in early stages, when treatments are more effective.

If you have more questions about lung cancer risk, contact the Cancer Learning Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute:

Cancer touches all of us.