Painful Respiration

Written by JC Jones MA, RN | Published on December 18, 2014
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA on December 18, 2014

What Is Painful Respiration?

Painful respiration is an unpleasant sensation ranging from mild discomfort to unbearable agony while breathing. Sometimes, it could be hard to breathe in addition to being painful. Certain things may make it worse, like the position of your body or the air quality.

Other ways of describing this symptom include:

  • painful breathing
  • chest pain on breathing
  • painful respiration
  • painful respiratory movement

Painful respirations may be a sign of a serious medical problem or a passing illness. Many cases require prompt medical care. For any unexplained chest pain or difficulty breathing, you will want to make an appointment with your doctor right away.

In other cases, as described below, you may want to call 911. Discuss painful respirations with your doctor if you have a chronic illness that results in occasional bouts of painful breathing during the course of regular treatment.

Signs of a Potential Medical Emergency

In some cases, painful breathing is a sign of a medical emergency. When you have any of the following symptoms in addition to painful breathing, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.

  • loss of consciousness
  • shortness of breath
  • rapid breathing
  • nasal flaring
  • air hunger (the feeling as though you are unable to get enough air)
  • gasping for breath
  • choking
  • chest pain
  • confusion
  • sweating profusely
  • pallor (pale skin)
  • cyanosis (skin turns blue)
  • dizziness
  • coughing up blood
  • fever 

Painful breathing can be a scary symptom. Even if you think it’s caused by something minor, talking with your doctor can help ensure there isn’t something more serious going on.

Possible Causes of Painful Breathing

There are many conditions that could result in painful breathing. In some cases, like burns, the cause will be obvious. In others, it will be more of a mystery. These conditions vary widely in severity and include:

  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • bronchitis
  • asthma
  • angina (when your heart does not get enough blood)
  • heart attack
  • burns (inhalation injury)
  • pneumonia
  • pleurisy (inflammation of the lining in your chest cavity)
  • pneumothorax (abnormal collection of air in the lining of your chest)
  • SARS (a viral respiratory disease)
  • emphysema (long-term lung disease)
  • empyema (a collection of pus within the lining of your chest cavity)
  • tuberculosis (potentially lethal infectious disease)
  • pericarditis (inflammation of the tissue surrounding the heart)
  • pulmonary embolism (blockage in one of the arteries of the lung)

Diagnosing the Underlying Cause of Painful Breathing

Because there are so many causes of painful breathing, and some of them are quite serious, your doctor will conduct a thorough evaluation. They will want to know about your complete medical history, family history of lung disease, and any other symptoms you might have. Because some conditions, like pneumonia, seem to worsen when you are lying down, your doctor will ask you if anything seems to help or if anything makes the breathing even more difficult.

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 (an imaging test)
  • blood and urine tests
  • electrocardiogram or EKG (a test that measures the activity of your heart)

Your doctor may refer you to a specialist if they’re unable to determine the cause of your pain. Once your doctor has found the cause of your painful breathing, you will be able to discuss possible treatment options.

Treating Painful Breathing

The treatment of this symptom, of course, depends on the cause. While pneumonia may be helped with a round of 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. 

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