What Causes Painful Respiration?

Medically reviewed by Judith Marcin, MD on February 27, 2018Written by JC Jones MA, RN and Kristeen Cherney

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... Read More

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.

Signs of a medical emergency

Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if you’re experiencing pain while breathing, along with any of the following symptoms:

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.

What can cause painful breathing?

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.

Illnesses

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:

Heart disease

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:

How does your doctor determine the cause of painful breathing?

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:

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.

How can you treat painful breathing?

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.

Changing positions

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

Short-term solutions

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
  • fumes

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:

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.

Medically reviewed by Judith Marcin, MD on February 27, 2018Written by JC Jones MA, RN and Kristeen Cherney

21 possible conditions

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.

Medically reviewed by Judith Marcin, MD on February 27, 2018Written by JC Jones MA, RN and Kristeen Cherney
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