What is painful respiration?
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 it hard to breathe, like the position of your body or the air quality.
Painful respiration can be a sign of a serious medical problem or illness. This often requires immediate medical care.
Make an appointment with your doctor right away for any unexplained chest pain or difficulty breathing. Also talk with your doctor if you have a chronic illness that results in occasional bouts of painful breathing.
Call 911 or go to the 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 feeling as though you’re unable to get enough air
- gasping for breath
- chest pain
- excessive sweating
- pallor, or pale skin
- blue discoloration of skin, lips, fingers, or toes (cyanosis)
- 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 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.
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 the lungs or chest cavity often due to infection
- bronchitis, an 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 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, the most common of which is emphysema
- chemical or smoke inhalation injury
- broken ribs
- pulmonary embolism, a blockage in one of the arteries of the 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 the ribs, breast bone, and spine that causes chest pain
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 having a heart attack may have breathing difficulties without chest pain.
Types of heart disease that can contribute to painful breathing 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, when inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart causes a sharp pain
Heart-related chest pain can also cause:
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 and heart disease, and 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-rays
- a CT scan
- blood and urine tests
- an electrocardiogram (EKG)
- pulse oximetry
- an echocardiogram
- a 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.
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’re lying down.
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
Besides medications, there’s other preventive care measures and short-term solutions that can help.
Sitting down and focusing on your breath can help if breathing becomes painful during normal 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 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 (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 your cholesterol levels
- exercising daily
- decreasing your consumption of salt, saturated fats, and trans 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 your painful respiration worsens.
Is there anything I can do to make the pain stop temporarily?
There are a variety of things that may provide temporary relief from painful breathing. If you have a known lung condition like asthma or COPD, try using your breathing treatments, inhalers, or other medications prescribed by your doctor. If this is a new problem, try changing positions, such as sitting up straight or lying on your left side. Taking slow breaths may help as well. A dose of antacid like Tums or the pain medication acetaminophen (Tylenol) may also help.
Ultimately, your painful breathing needs to be properly diagnosed so that you can receive the correct treatment.Judith Marcin, MDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.