Why Does It Hurt To Breathe

Why Does It Hurt To Breathe
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Many readers are interested in the following topic: Why Do I Have Chest Pain When Breathing. We are happy to note, that our authors have already studied the modern research about the topic you are interested in. Based on the information provided in the latest medical digests, modern research and surveys, we provide extensive answer. Keep reading to find out more.

In addition to painful respiration, you may experience:

What can cause painful respiration?

Painful respiration is discomfort that occurs when a person breathes in or out. Infections, musculoskeletal injuries, and heart problems can cause this pain.

The lungs do not have pain receptors, so when a person experiences painful respiration, it is not the lungs themselves that hurt. However, conditions that affect the lungs, organs, joints, or muscles within the chest cavity can cause pain when breathing.

In this article, we discuss when to get help and the possible causes of painful respiration. We also cover diagnosis, home treatment, and prevention.

Share on Pinterest Anyone who experiences excessive sweating alongside painful respiration should seek immediate medical attention.

Pain when breathing can sometimes be a sign of a potentially life-threatening condition, such as a heart attack or pulmonary embolism.

Seek immediate medical attention if the pain accompanies any of the following symptoms:

  • choking
  • loss or a decreased level of consciousness
  • chest tightness or pain, especially if it spreads to the arms, back, shoulder, neck, or jaw
  • severe shortness of breath
  • blue skin, fingers, or nails
  • struggling or gasping for air
  • excessive sweating
  • sudden dizziness or feeling lightheaded

Pneumonia is an inflammation of the air sacs within the lungs. The most common cause of pneumonia in adults is a bacterial infection, but other causes include viral and fungal infections.

People with pneumonia often have chest pain that can worsen when inhaling.

Other symptoms of pneumonia can include:

  • coughing
  • a high fever
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath

People with symptoms of pneumonia should see a doctor. Treatment depends on the cause and severity of the condition. A doctor may prescribe antibiotics for bacterial infections.

Pleurisy is an inflammation of the pleura, which are the tissues that line the chest cavity and the outside of the lungs. Many conditions can lead to pleurisy, including viral and bacterial infections.

People with pleurisy tend to experience sharp pain when breathing. Other symptoms may include:

  • pain that may spread to the shoulder blades
  • chest pain that is worse when coughing or sneezing
  • shortness of breath
  • unexplained weight loss

People with symptoms of pleurisy should see a doctor. Treatment depends on the underlying condition.

Costochondritis is inflammation of the cartilage that connects the breastbone and the ribs. The cause of this inflammation is not always clear, but it can sometimes result from a chest injury, severe coughing, or a respiratory infection.

Costochondritis typically causes sharp pain and tenderness around the breastbone. People may find that this pain radiates to the back and gets worse when breathing deeply or coughing.

Costochondritis often gets better on its own, but people should see a doctor if the pain interferes with daily activities.

Share on Pinterest Chest pain that gets worse with breathing or coughing could be a sign of pneumothorax.

Pneumothorax occurs when air enters the pleural space, which is the space between the chest wall and the lungs. The buildup of air increases the pressure in the pleural cavity, which can cause part or all of a person’s lung to collapse.

A chest wound, lung injury, or a complication of lung disease, such as emphysema or tuberculosis, typically cause pneumothorax.

Pneumothorax can cause chest pain that gets worse with breathing or coughing. Other symptoms can include:

  • a fast heart rate
  • bluish skin or nails
  • shortness of breath
  • tiredness
  • chest tightness
  • flaring of the nostrils

People with symptoms of pneumothorax should see a doctor. To prevent a person’s lung collapsing, a doctor may need to remove air from the pleural space.

Pericarditis is an inflammation of the pericardium, which is a fluid-filled sac that surrounds and protects the heart. A wide variety of factors can cause pericarditis, including:

  • bacterial and viral infections
  • injuries or surgery to the heart
  • certain medications
  • autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
  • rarely cancer

Pericarditis can lead to painful breathing or sharp chest pain that may feel better when sitting upright and leaning forward. People with pericarditis may also experience:

  • a fever
  • irregular heartbeat or palpitations
  • shortness of breath
  • lightheadedness or dizziness

Anyone with symptoms of pericarditis should seek medical attention. Doctors can usually treat pericarditis with anti-inflammatory medications.

Injuries to the chest, such as pulled muscles, broken ribs, or a bruised chest wall, can lead to pain when breathing. This pain may occur only on the side of the injury.

Other symptoms of a chest injury may include:

  • bruising or skin discoloration
  • pain that radiates to the neck or back
  • shortness of breath

Chest injuries can result from:

  • blows and impacts to the chest
  • sports injuries
  • severe coughing
  • surgery
  • falls

People with minor chest injuries can often treat themselves at home with rest and pain medications. However, individuals with serious injuries or other concerning symptoms should seek medical attention.

A doctor will typically ask a person about their symptoms, review their medical history, and perform a physical examination of their chest.

The doctor may then recommend one or more tests to help determine the cause of a person’s pain.

Possible tests include:

  • Chest X-ray. X-rays create an image of the inside of the chest and allow the doctor to check for conditions, such as injuries and infections.
  • CT scan. This test involves taking a series of X-rays from different angles to create more precise images. CT scans are sometimes more useful than a chest X-ray.
  • Pulmonary function tests. These involve a person doing a series of breathing tests that help determine how well their lungs are functioning. Doctors can use the results to diagnose respiratory conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG). Doctors use an ECG to measure the electrical activity of a person’s heart, which can help diagnose heart problems.
  • Pulse oximetry. Pulse oximetry measures oxygen levels in the blood. Low levels of oxygen can indicate certain respiratory conditions, such as a pneumothorax or pneumonia.

Medical treatment for people with painful respiration depends on the underlying cause. However, home treatment may help relieve chest pain and other symptoms.

People who experience pain when breathing may wish to try:

  • Pain medications. Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, can help reduce pain from conditions such as costochondritis and minor chest injuries.
  • Changing positions. Leaning forward or sitting upright can sometimes help relieve chest pain from conditions such as pericarditis.
  • Breathing more slowly. Relaxing the chest and breathing more slowly may help ease symptoms in some people.
  • Cough suppressants. If symptoms also include coughing, taking OTC cough medications may help to reduce discomfort.

Share on Pinterest Eating a healthful diet can reduce the risk of some conditions that cause painful respiration.

Preventing painful respiration is not always possible. Conditions that can lead to painful breathing do not always have a clear cause, which makes them hard for a person to prevent.

However, some lifestyle interventions can help reduce the risk of infections and other chest problems that can lead to painful respiration. These can include:

  • quitting smoking
  • practicing good hygiene, such as regularly washing hands
  • having an annual flu shot
  • eating a balanced and healthful diet
  • doing regular exercise
  • getting enough sleep

Painful respiration is not a disease itself but usually a symptom of another condition. Causes can range from mild to severe and can include chest injuries, infections, and inflammation.

It is generally advisable for people with painful breathing to see a doctor for an evaluation. Anyone with chest pain as well as difficulty breathing should seek immediate medical attention.

Last medically reviewed on March 15, 2019

  • Pulmonary System
  • Respiratory
  • Infectious Diseases / Bacteria / Viruses

How we reviewed this article:

Medical News Today has strict sourcing guidelines and draws only from peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical journals and associations. We avoid using tertiary references. We link primary sources — including studies, scientific references, and statistics — within each article and also list them in the resources section at the bottom of our articles. You can learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate and current by reading our editorial policy.

  • Ayloo, A., et al. (2013). Evaluation and treatment of musculoskeletal chest pain.
  • Heart inflammation. (n.d.).
  • Pleurisy and other pleural disorders. (n.d.).
  • Pneumonia. (n.d.).
  • Pneumonia symptoms and diagnosis. (n.d.).
  • Symptoms and diagnosis of pericarditis. (2016).

Why Do I Have Chest Pain When Breathing?

Dull or sharp pain when breathing in or out can range from mild to severe, and it can also make it hard to breathe. This may be a sign of a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention.

Certain factors may make it hard to breathe, like the position of your body or the air quality.

Seek emergency medical care right away for any unexplained chest pain or difficulty breathing. Also, speak with a doctor if you have a chronic illness that results in occasional bouts of painful breathing.

Possible medical emergency

Painful breathing can be a sign of a medical emergency or a symptom of a serious condition. Even if you think the cause is minor, meeting with a doctor can help make sure there isn’t something more serious going on.

In some cases, an injury to your chest, like a burn or a bruise, can cause painful breathing. In other cases, the cause may not be clear, and you’ll need to visit a doctor for an exam.

Conditions that cause painful breathing can vary widely in severity and include short-term illnesses as well as more serious issues with the lungs or heart.

Infectious causes

Even though the common cold can cause wheezing and minor breathing troubles, painful respiration can be linked to more serious illnesses.

It can be painful to take a deep breath, or you may have difficulty breathing when lying down, depending on the cause.

Some illnesses that can cause painful breathing include:

  • pneumonia, a lung infection caused by a virus, fungus, or bacteria
  • tuberculosis, a serious bacterial lung infection
  • pleurisy, an inflammation of the lining of your lungs or chest cavity, often due to infection
  • bronchitis, an infection or inflammation of the breathing tubes within your lungs
  • shingles, a painful infection caused by the reactivation of the chickenpox virus


Chest pain while breathing can be a symptom of COVID-19. If your chest pain is related to COVID-19, you may experience other symptoms, such as:

  • fever or chills
  • fatigue
  • myalgia (muscle pain)
  • loss of taste and smell
  • sore throat

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) , chest pain while breathing could be an emergency warning sign if you have other symptoms of COVID-19. Seek emergency medical attention right away.

Painful respiration may also be a symptom of post COVID-19 condition, or long COVID. This means that the symptom may occur 3 months or longer after a COVID-19 diagnosis.

Lung injuries and disorders

Lung injuries and disorders can also cause painful breathing. Unlike short-term illnesses, these conditions can cause long-term breathing problems.

You’ll likely feel pain when breathing in and out, and your breaths may be shallower. Deeper breathing may cause coughing fits along with pain.

Some of the possible causes include:

  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a group of lung diseases with the most common one being emphysema
  • asthma
  • chemical or smoke inhalation injury
  • broken ribs
  • pulmonary embolism, a blockage in one of the arteries of your lung
  • pneumothorax, a collapsed lung
  • empyema, a collection of infected pus within the lining of your chest cavity
  • costochondritis, an inflammation of the connections between your ribs, breastbone, and spine that causes chest pain

Heart disease and other heart issues

Heart disease is another possible cause of painful breathing. In such cases, you’ll likely have shortness of breath and breathing discomfort.

About 26 percent of people with heart-related issues, such as a heart attack, may seek treatment because of the breathing difficulty alone.

Types of heart disease that can contribute to painful breathing include:

  • angina, when blood flow to your heart is decreased
  • heart attack, when blood flow to your heart is blocked
  • heart failure, when your heart can’t pump blood properly
  • myocarditis, when the heart muscle becomes inflamed
  • pericarditis, when inflammation of the sac surrounding your heart causes a sharp pain

Heart-related chest pain can also cause:

  • burning sensations
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • sweating
  • pain that moves into your neck, jaw, arm, or shoulder
  • upper abdominal pain

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

GERD occurs when the acidic contents of your stomach move back up into your esophagus. It’s a common condition that affects roughly 1 in 5 people in the United States.

The main symptom of GERD is heartburn, but you may also experience:

  • nausea
  • bad breath
  • difficulty swallowing

GERD is also linked to many conditions that can cause painful respiration, such as asthma and COPD.

Panic attack

A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear or discomfort. Symptoms of a panic attack often resemble those of heart disease or breathing disorders. Intensity usually peaks within 10 minutes or less.

In addition to painful respiration, you may experience:

  • accelerated heart rate or heart palpitations
  • sweating
  • trembling
  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness
  • lightheadedness
  • derealization, which is when you lose your sense of reality

Call emergency services or go to the nearest emergency room if you’re experiencing chest pain while breathing, along with any of the following symptoms:

  • loss of consciousness
  • shortness of breath
  • rapid breathing
  • nasal flaring in children or infants
  • air hunger, or feeling as though you’re unable to get enough air
  • gasping for breath
  • choking
  • confusion
  • excessive sweating
  • pallor, or pale skin
  • blue discoloration of your skin, lips, fingers, or toes (cyanosis)
  • dizziness
  • coughing up blood
  • fever

A doctor will conduct a thorough evaluation to determine the cause of your painful respiration. They’ll ask about your:

  • complete medical history
  • family history of lung and heart disease
  • any other symptoms you might have

They’ll also ask you where it hurts when you breathe and what does or doesn’t help the pain, like changing positions or taking medication.

Your doctor will likely order some tests to help determine the cause of your painful breathing. These tests may include:

  • chest X-ray
  • CT scan
  • blood and urine tests
  • electrocardiogram (EKG)
  • pulse oximetry
  • echocardiogram
  • pulmonary function test

Once your doctor has determined the cause of your painful breathing, they’ll discuss possible treatment options with you. Your doctor may also refer you to a specialist if they’re unable to determine the cause of your pain.

The treatment of painful breathing depends on the cause. While you can treat bacterial pneumonia with antibiotics, other conditions may require anticoagulation medication or even surgery.

Conditions like asthma and emphysema usually require long-term care, including breathing treatments and a prescription drug regimen.

Changing positions

You may find relief from painful breathing after changing your body’s position, especially if you have COPD. You can try elevating your head with a pillow if the pain comes when you’re lying down.

Make sure to first speak with a doctor about your symptoms so you don’t delay your treatment.

If you’re sitting, you can try:

  • resting your feet flat on the floor
  • leaning forward slightly
  • resting your elbows on your knees or on a table
  • relaxing your neck and shoulder muscles

If you’re standing, you can try:

  • standing with your feet shoulder-width apart
  • leaning with your hips against the wall
  • relaxing your shoulders and resting your head on your arms
  • leaning forward slightly with your hands on your thighs

Short-term solutions

Besides medications, there are other preventive care measures and short-term solutions that can help. But as always, it’s important to contact a doctor if you have trouble breathing for any reason. They can provide an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.

Sitting down and focusing on your breath can help if breathing becomes painful during everyday activities. Tell your doctor if your painful breathing improves with rest.

If the painful breathing interferes with your exercise routine, try lighter workouts such as tai chi or yoga. The meditation and focus aspects of these workouts can also help you relax while improving your breathing.

Long-term respiratory care

You can lower your risk of lung diseases by reducing your exposure to:

  • cigarette smoke
  • environmental pollution
  • workplace toxins
  • fumes

If you have asthma or COPD, it’s important to follow your treatment plan to reduce breathing problems. Ask your doctor whether certain breathing exercises can help.

Diaphragmatic (deep breathing) techniques can help encourage better breathing over time and reduce pain.

Preventing risk factors for heart disease can also help prevent related illnesses and subsequent symptoms. You can lower your risk of heart attack, angina, and other forms of heart disease by:

  • trying to lose weight, if applicable
  • lowering your blood pressure
  • decreasing your cholesterol levels
  • exercising daily
  • decreasing your consumption of salt, saturated fats, and trans fats
  • quitting smoking if you smoke, which is often difficult, but a doctor can help you create a cessation plan that works for you
  • managing your diabetes if you have diabetes

Preexisting cases of heart disease must be monitored by a doctor. Make sure you take all medications as prescribed, and notify your doctor if your painful respiration worsens.