Painful respiration is an unpleasant sensation while breathing. This can range from mild discomfort to severe pain. In addition to the pain, it can also be hard to breathe. Certain factors may make breathing harder, like the position of your body or the air quality.
Painful respirations can be a sign of a serious medical problem or illness. This often requires prompt medical care.
Make an appointment with your doctor right away for any unexplained chest pain or difficulty breathing. Discuss painful respirations with your doctor if you have a chronic illness that results in occasional bouts of painful breathing.
When to call 911
Call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room if you’re experiencing pain while breathing along with any of the following symptoms:
- loss of consciousness
- shortness of breath
- rapid breathing
- nasal flaring
- air hunger, or the feeling as though you are unable to get enough air
- gasping for breath
- chest pain
- sweating profusely
- pallor, or pale skin
- cyanosis, blue discoloration of skin, lips, fingers, or toes
- coughing up blood
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 your doctor can help ensure there isn’t something more serious going on.
In some cases, an injury to the chest, like a burn or a bruise, can cause painful breathing. In others instances, the cause may not be clear and you may 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.
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 causes can be:
- pneumonia, a lung infection caused by a virus or bacteria
- tuberculosis, a serious bacterial lung infection
- pleurisy, inflammation of the lining of the lungs or chest cavity often due to infection
- bronchitis, infection or inflammation of the breathing tubes within the lungs
- shingles, a painful infection caused by the reactivation of the chicken pox virus
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 more shallow. Deeper breathing may cause coughing fits along with pain.
Some of the possible causes include:
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), also called emphysema
- chemical or smoke inhalation injury
- broken ribs
- pulmonary embolism, blockage in one of the arteries of the lung
- pneumothorax, or a collapsed lung
- empyema, a collection of infected pus within the lining of your chest cavity
- costochondritis, inflammation in the joints of the ribs that causes chest pain
Heart disease is another possible cause of painful respiration. In such cases, you will likely feel slight pressure or squeezing around your heart area when you breathe. This is typically felt on the left side, rather than the whole chest.
Heart-related chest pain can also cause:
- burning sensations
- pain that moves into the neck or jaw
Types of heart disease that can contribute to painful respiration include:
- angina, when blood flow to the heart is decreased
- heart attack, when blood flow to the heart is blocked
- heart failure, when the heart can’t pump blood properly
- pericarditis, inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart that causes a sharp pain
Your 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 disease and heart disease, and any other symptoms you might have. Your doctor will 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-rays
- CT scan, or an imaging test
- blood and urine tests
- electrocardiogram (EKG), to measure the electrical activity of your heart
- pulse oximetry, a painless reading from your finger that can detect the oxygen level in your blood
- echocardiogram, an ultrasound of your heart
- pulmonary function test, a breathing test for lung disease
Once your doctor has found the cause of your painful breathing, they will discuss possible treatment options. Your doctor may also refer you to a specialist if they’re unable to determine the cause of your pain.
The treatment of this symptom depends on the cause. While you can treat 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.
You may find relief from painful breathing after changing your body’s position, especially if you have COPD. According to the Cleveland Clinic, you can try elevating your head with a pillow if the pain comes when you are lying down.
If you are 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 feet shoulder-width apart
- leaning with your hips against the wall
- relaxing your shoulders and resting your head on your arms
- learning forward slightly with your hands on your thighs
Besides medications, there are other preventive care and short-term solutions that can help.
Sitting down and focusing on your breath can help if breathing becomes too much to handle during normal activities. Tell your doctor if your painful respiration improves with rest. If painful respiration 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 the breath.
Long-term respiratory care
You can lower your risk for lung diseases by reducing your exposure to:
- cigarette smoke
- environmental pollution
- workplace toxins
If you have asthma or COPD, it’s important to follow your treatment plan to reduce breathing problems. Ask your doctor about whether certain breathing exercises can help. Diaphragmatic, or 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 for heart attack, angina, and other forms of heart disease by:
- losing weight
- lowering your blood pressure
- decreasing cholesterol levels
- exercising daily
- decreasing consumption of salt and saturated fats
- quitting smoking
- controlling 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 painful respiration worsens.