Lung cancer risk factors

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]; Associate Editor(s)-in-Chief: Kim-Son H. Nguyen M.D. Cafer Zorkun, M.D., Ph.D. [2]


The most potent risk factor in the development of lung cancer is tobacco smoking. Other risk factors include second hand smoke, air pollution, family history of lung cancer, radiation therapy to the chest, and exposure to radon, asbestos and other chemical carcinogens.

Risk Factors

Common Risk Factors

The following may increase one's risk of lung cancer:[1][2][3]


  • Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer.[4][5][6][7]
  • Both active and passive smoking are associated with increased risk of lung cancer.
  • The risk of lung cancer is associated with increased quantity of cigarette smoking as well as increased duration of smoking.
  • There is no evidence that smoking low-tar cigarettes lowers the risk (however lung cancer has occurred in people who have never smoked).
  • The more cigarettes you smoke per day and the earlier you started smoking, the greater your risk of lung cancer.
  • Recently introduced e-cigarettes, which were thought to be risk-free were recently demonstrated to be also associated with a significantly increased risk of lung cancer due to the presence of formaldehyde.[8]
  • In the United States, smoking is estimated to account for 87% of lung cancer cases (90% in men and 85% in women).[9]*There is approximately a 20 year lag period between smoking and death due to lung cancer (in men). Shown below is an image depicting the correlation between smoking and lung cancer.
The incidence of lung cancer is highly correlated with smoking. Source: NIH.

Second-hand Smoke

Air Pollution

  • Emissions from automobiles, factories and power plants are thought to pose potential risks.[12]

Family History of Lung Cancer[14]

  • Family history of lung cancer may increase the risk of lung cancer.
  • First-degree relatives of people who have had lung cancer may have a slightly higher risk of developing lung cancer themselves.
  • The increased risk among first-degree relatives could be due to a number of factors, such as shared behaviors or living with the same exposure to carcinogens.
  • Studies of families with a strong history of lung cancer have found that the increased risk might be due to a mutation in a lung cancer gene.
  • Other studies have shown that the risk of lung cancer in a family increases if a family member developed the disease at an early age.

Radiation Therapy to the Chest

Radon Exposure

  • Radon exposure increases the risk of lung cancer. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers and the second leading cause of lung cancer in smokers.
  • The risk of developing lung cancer depends on how much radon a person is exposed to, how long they are exposed as well as whether or not they smoke. The risk from radon is much higher in people who smoke than in those who don't.

Asbestos Exposure

  • Exposure to asbestos fibers in the air that people breathe increases the risk of lung cancer.

Exposure to Other Chemical Carcinogens

Less Common Risk Factors


  1. Malhotra J, Malvezzi M, Negri E, La Vecchia C, Boffetta P (September 2016). "Risk factors for lung cancer worldwide". Eur. Respir. J. 48 (3): 889–902. doi:10.1183/13993003.00359-2016. PMID 27174888.
  2. Dela Cruz CS, Tanoue LT, Matthay RA (December 2011). "Lung cancer: epidemiology, etiology, and prevention". Clin. Chest Med. 32 (4): 605–44. doi:10.1016/j.ccm.2011.09.001. PMC 3864624. PMID 22054876.
  3. de Groot P, Munden RF (September 2012). "Lung cancer epidemiology, risk factors, and prevention". Radiol. Clin. North Am. 50 (5): 863–76. doi:10.1016/j.rcl.2012.06.006. PMID 22974775.
  4. CDC (Dec 1986). "1986 Surgeon General's report: the health consequences of involuntary smoking". CDC. PMID 3097495. Retrieved 2007-08-10.
    * National Research Council (1986). Environmental tobacco smoke: measuring exposures and assessing health effects. National Academy Press. ISBN 0-309-07456-8.
    * Template:Cite paper
    * California Environmental Protection Agency (1997). "Health effects of exposure to environmental tobacco smoke". Tobacco Control. 6 (4): 346–353. PMID 9583639. Retrieved 2007-08-10.
    * CDC (Dec 2001). "State-specific prevalence of current cigarette smoking among adults, and policies and attitudes about secondhand smoke—United States, 2000". Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. CDC. 50 (49): 1101–1106. PMID 11794619. Retrieved 2007-08-10.
    * Alberg, AJ (Jan 2003). "Epidemiology of lung cancer". Chest. American College of Chest Physicians. 123 (S1): 21S–49S. PMID 12527563. Retrieved 2007-08-10. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)
  5. Boffetta, P (Oct 1998). "Multicenter case-control study of exposure to environmental tobacco smoke and lung cancer in Europe". Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Oxford University Press. 90 (19): 1440–1450. PMID 9776409. Retrieved 2007-08-10. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)
  6. "Report of the Scientific Committee on Tobacco and Health". Department of Health. Mar 1998. Retrieved 2007-07-09.
    * Hackshaw, AK (Jun 1998). "Lung cancer and passive smoking". Statistical Methods in Medical Research. 7 (2): 119–136. PMID 9654638.
  7. Template:Cite paper
  8. Jensen RP, Luo W, Pankow JF, Strongin RM, Peyton DH (2015). "Hidden formaldehyde in e-cigarette aerosols". N Engl J Med. 372 (4): 392–4. doi:10.1056/NEJMc1413069. PMID 25607446.
  9. Samet, JM (May 1988). "Cigarette smoking and lung cancer in New Mexico". American Review of Respiratory Disease. 137 (5): 1110–1113. PMID 3264122. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)
  10. Lung cancer. Canadian Cancer Society 2015.
  11. Lung cancer. Canadian Cancer Society 2015.
  12. Parent, ME (Jan 2007). "Exposure to diesel and gasoline engine emissions and the risk of lung cancer". American Journal of Epidemiology. 165 (1): 53–62. PMID 17062632. Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (help)
  13. Lung cancer. Canadian Cancer Society 2015.
  14. Lung cancer. Canadian Cancer Society 2015.


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