Key Points about Lung Nodules

  • Lung nodules are small growths in the lungs that can be either harmless or cancerous.
  • If your lung nodules are benign (harmless), you probably won’t need to undergo treatment.
  • Doctors use imaging tests, biopsy and physical exam to diagnose lung nodules.
  • Treatment for malignant (cancerous) lung nodules typically involves surgery to remove the areas of the lung with cancerous cells.


Lung nodules are small, unusual growths in the lungs. Also known as pulmonary nodules, they can be benign (harmless) or malignant (cancerous). Most lung nodules are benign. 

Lung nodules are small – less than three centimeters – in size. If a growth is larger than three centimeters, it is known as a mass and is more likely to be cancerous.

Lung nodules causes 

Lung nodules can be caused by certain infections, as well as non-infectious conditions such as sarcoidosis.

Lung nodules risk factors

The following factors may increase your risk for developing a malignant lung nodule:

  • Being a smoker or having a history of smoking
  • Being older

Lung nodules symptoms

Lung nodules typically don’t cause any symptoms. If a person does experience symptoms, they are usually related to the underlying condition that caused the lung nodule (and not the nodule itself). Symptoms of conditions that can cause lung nodules include developing a new cough or coughing up blood.

Lung nodules diagnosis

Your oncologist may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose this condition:

  • Physical exam - your doctor will perform a complete physical exam, including asking questions about your health history, symptoms and related risk factors.
  • Biopsy - in this test, your doctor removes a biopsy (small tissue sample) from your lung. This sample is sent to the laboratory, where a specialist closely checks the biopsy for abnormalities.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan - your doctor may order a CT scan of your chest. This specialized imaging test uses a series of X-ray images to create detailed images of the inside of your body. Imaging tests help your doctor determine if the cancer has spread beyond your lungs.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan - your doctor may use this type of imaging test to help determine if the lung nodule is benign or malignant. A PET scan uses a radioactive substance to provide information about the activity of potentially cancerous cells.
  • Sputum cytology - if you have a persistent cough, your doctor may send a sample of your sputum (spit) to the lab for close analysis. Sometimes, cancerous cells can be seen in the sputum sample.
  • Ultrasound - your doctor may order an ultrasound, an imaging test that uses sound waves to create detailed images of your chest. Imaging tests help your doctor determine if the cancer has spread beyond your lung.

Lung nodules treatment

If you have benign lung nodules, you probably won’t need to undergo treatment right away. Your doctor may suggest ongoing monitoring for a period of time and treatment for the underlying condition that caused the nodules.

Depending on your personal health history, the extent of your malignant lung nodules and other factors, your oncologist may recommend surgery to remove the nodules. In a procedure known as thoracotomy, your surgeon removes the areas of your lung tissue that contain the malignant nodules. 

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing an oncologist for more specialized treatment.

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