If you have a cough, you might chalk it up to the common cold or a throat irritation. But what if you develop chest pain with a cough? Should you be worried?
To help you identify the exact cause, check out the following list of 10 possible causes of chest pain and coughing.
Bronchitis is inflammation of the tubes that carry air to and from your lungs. It’s sometimes referred to as a chest cold.
Irritation of your bronchial tubes can cause repeated bouts of coughing, which can lead to chest discomfort. Acute bronchitis is temporary, with symptoms improving in about a week, although a cough may last up to several weeks.
Pneumonia is an infection of the air sacs in your lungs. It can be bacterial, viral, or fungal. Pneumonia causes increased mucus production, which can trigger coughing. Persistent coughing, in turn, causes chest pain.
Other symptoms of pneumonia include:
Coughing and chest pain might be due to pleurisy. This is inflammation in the tissue lining your lungs and chest cavity. Inflammation can cause sharp chest pain that worsens when you breathe, sneeze, or cough.
Inflammation can also make it difficult to breathe, triggering a cough in some people.
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness that causes the following symptoms:
- muscle aches
- runny nose
Excess mucus production can also trigger a persistent cough, which can lead to chest soreness or chest pain. Chest discomfort improves once the cough lessens.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term to describe progressive, chronic lung diseases. It includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and refractory asthma. The main symptom of COPD is breathlessness.
Smoking and long-term exposure to poor air can cause this disease.
Inflammation in the lungs increases mucus production, causing a chronic cough and chest tightness.
With asthma, inflammation causes narrowing of the airways. This narrowing can make it difficult to breathe, causing a chronic cough in some people.
Asthma can also cause excess mucus, which may contribute to a cough. Chest pain can follow a coughing bout, and difficulty breathing can feel like chest tightness.
Acid reflux is a digestive disease that occurs when stomach acid back flows into the esophagus. It can cause regurgitation and nausea, as well as coughing. Heartburn is a classic symptom of acid reflux. It can feel like burning in the chest.
Pulmonary embolism is a blood clot that travels to the lungs. It can cause shortness of breath, chest pain, and a cough. A blood clot in your lungs can feel like a heart attack, and you may cough up bloody streaks of sputum.
Other symptoms include:
- leg pain or swelling
If you have a history of smoking and develop a persistent cough with chest pain, see a doctor.
Early lung cancer may not cause symptoms. As the cancer grows, you may develop chest tightness or pain. Shortness of breath can lead to a chronic cough that produces blood.
Lupus is an autoimmune disease that affects different tissues and organs in your body. This includes your joints, skin, and lungs.
When lupus affects the pulmonary system, the lining on the outside of your lungs becomes inflamed. This inflammation causes chest pain, shortness of breath, and a chronic cough.
Other symptoms of lupus include:
- joint pain
- a butterfly shaped rash on the face, in some people
There isn’t a single test to diagnose the underlying cause of a cough and chest pain.
At your appointment, your doctor may conduct a physical examination and ask about accompanying symptoms. Be honest about how you feel. From here, your doctor may order imaging tests of your chest to look for signs of infection, inflammation, or tumors.
Your doctor may also have you undergo a few tests, including:
- Imaging tests. These may include a chest X-ray, CT scan, or MRI.
- Pulmonary function test. This test will measure how well your lungs deliver oxygen to your blood.
- Sputum test. This is to check your mucus for signs of an infection or allergy.
- Complete blood count. This can help confirm or rule out lupus. The test evaluates your number of red blood cells. A low number can indicate anemia, a symptom of lupus. Blood tests can also check for antibodies that indicate lupus.
Treatment for chest pain and coughing depend on the underlying condition.
- Viral infection. There’s no cure for a viral infection like the flu. In this case, the virus has to run its course, although over-the-counter (OTC) cold and flu medications can help you feel better. These medications can relieve a fever, body aches, and other flu symptoms.
- Bacterial infection. If you have a bacterial infection, like bronchitis or pneumonia, you’ll need to take antibiotics. Your doctor may prescribe a 7- to 10-day course. Take the full course of a prescribed antibiotic to ensure treatment of the infection.
- Chronic conditions. For chronic conditions like COPD, asthma, or reflux disease, your doctor can recommend a therapy based on the severity of your symptoms. For example, a bronchodilator and other COPD medications can help reduce breathlessness. Or you may need to use a short-acting or long-acting inhaler for asthma.
- Pulmonary embolism. Treatment for a pulmonary embolism will involve blood thinners and perhaps surgery to remove a large blood clot.
- Lung cancer. Lung cancer treatment includes surgery, chemotherapy drugs, or radiation to shrink a tumor.
- Lupus. Over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen (Motrin) and naproxen sodium (Aleve) can ease symptoms of lupus, as well as corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and immunosuppressant drugs.
Along with conventional therapy, home remedies can help relieve symptoms. If a nagging cough causes chest pain, treating the cough may ease chest discomfort.
- Drink warm fluids. Warm water or tea can soothe your throat and bronchial tubes, easing a persistent cough. Honey can also act as a cough suppressant, so add 1 or 2 teaspoons to your drink.
- Use a humidifier. A humidifier reduces dryness in the air. The extra moisture can loosen or thin mucus in your throat.
- Avoid smoke exposure. Exposure to smoke and other air pollutants can worsen a cough and increase chest pain. Try to avoid secondhand smoke, and if you currently smoke, talk to your doctor about a smoking cessation program to help you quit.
- Suck on throat lounges to soothe your throat. Throat irritation from a viral infection or chest infection can also cause a persistent cough, leading to chest pain.
- Take OTC medication. A cough suppressant can help ease a cough. To avoid drug interactions, talk to your doctor first if you take a prescription medication.
A cough and chest pain can be a minor annoyance, or they can progress into serious complications.
Untreated flu and bronchitis can advance to pneumonia. If left untreated, pneumonia can cause sepsis and organ failure.
Severe COPD and an asthma attack can also be life-threatening if it causes respiratory failure. Similarly, untreated pulmonary embolism can cause tissue damage and weaken your heart.
According to the Mayo Clinic, roughly one-third of people with undiagnosed and untreated pulmonary embolism die.
Early treatment is also crucial with lung cancer to prevent cancerous cells from spreading to other parts of the body.
A nagging cough might not be anything to worry about. See a doctor for an unexplained cough that doesn’t improve, especially when it’s accompanied by chest pain or other symptoms like:
- fever higher than 103°F (39°C)
- leg pain or swelling
- shortness of breath
A number of conditions can trigger a cough with chest pain, so it can be difficult to pinpoint the underlying cause. Talk to your doctor, and be honest about your symptoms. The more information you provide, the easier it’ll be for your doctor to make a diagnosis.