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.
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
- myalgia (muscle pain)
- loss of taste and smell
- sore throat
According to the
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
- 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
- pain that moves into your neck, jaw, arm, or shoulder
- upper abdominal pain
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
The main symptom of GERD is heartburn, but you may also experience:
- bad breath
- difficulty swallowing
GERD is also linked to many conditions that can cause painful respiration, such as asthma and COPD.
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:
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
- excessive sweating
- pallor, or pale skin
- blue discoloration of your skin, lips, fingers, or toes (cyanosis)
- coughing up blood
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
- 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.
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. 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
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
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.
Is there anything I can do to make the pain stop temporarily?Healthline reader
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.
Chest pain while breathing can be the result of sudden or short-term problems, or it can be a symptom of a chronic condition. It’s important to contact a doctor so you can get an accurate diagnosis.
Long-term solutions to painful respiration will depend on your diagnosis. There are short-term solutions available to you as well, but talk with your doctor first. Different causes require different treatments.
Regardless of the cause, if your symptoms come on suddenly, contact emergency services immediately.