Painful respiration is discomfort that occurs when a person breathes in or out. Infections, musculoskeletal injuries, and heart problems can cause this pain.
The lungs do not have pain receptors, so when a person experiences painful respiration, it is not the lungs themselves that hurt. However, conditions that affect the lungs, organs, joints, or muscles within the chest cavity can cause pain when breathing.
In this article, we discuss when to get help and the possible causes of painful respiration. We also cover diagnosis, home treatment, and prevention.
When to get help
Anyone who experiences excessive sweating alongside painful respiration should seek immediate medical attention.
Pain when breathing can sometimes be a sign of a potentially life-threatening condition, such as a heart attack or pulmonary embolism.
Seek immediate medical attention if the pain accompanies any of the following symptoms:
- loss or a decreased level of consciousness
- chest tightness or pain, especially if it spreads to the arms, back, shoulder, neck, or jaw
- severe shortness of breath
- blue skin, fingers, or nails
- struggling or gasping for air
- excessive sweating
- sudden dizziness or feeling lightheaded
Pneumonia is an inflammation of the air sacs within the lungs. The most common cause of pneumonia in adults is a bacterial infection, but other causes include viral and fungal infections.
People with pneumonia often have chest pain that can worsen when inhaling.
Other symptoms of pneumonia can include:
People with symptoms of pneumonia should see a doctor. Treatment depends on the cause and severity of the condition. A doctor may prescribe antibiotics for bacterial infections.
Pleurisy is an inflammation of the pleura, which are the tissues that line the chest cavity and the outside of the lungs. Many conditions can lead to pleurisy, including viral and bacterial infections.
People with pleurisy tend to experience sharp pain when breathing. Other symptoms may include:
- pain that may spread to the shoulder blades
- chest pain that is worse when coughing or sneezing
- shortness of breath
- unexplained weight loss
People with symptoms of pleurisy should see a doctor. Treatment depends on the underlying condition.
Costochondritis is inflammation of the cartilage that connects the breastbone and the ribs. The cause of this inflammation is not always clear, but it can sometimes result from a chest injury, severe coughing, or a respiratory infection.
Costochondritis typically causes sharp pain and tenderness around the breastbone. People may find that this pain radiates to the back and gets worse when breathing deeply or coughing.
Costochondritis often gets better on its own, but people should see a doctor if the pain interferes with daily activities.
Chest pain that gets worse with breathing or coughing could be a sign of pneumothorax.
Pneumothorax occurs when air enters the pleural space, which is the space between the chest wall and the lungs. The buildup of air increases the pressure in the pleural cavity, which can cause part or all of a person’s lung to collapse.
A chest wound, lung injury, or a complication of lung disease, such as emphysema or tuberculosis, typically cause pneumothorax.
Pneumothorax can cause chest pain that gets worse with breathing or coughing. Other symptoms can include:
- a fast heart rate
- bluish skin or nails
- shortness of breath
- chest tightness
- flaring of the nostrils
People with symptoms of pneumothorax should see a doctor. To prevent a person’s lung collapsing, a doctor may need to remove air from the pleural space.
Pericarditis is an inflammation of the pericardium, which is a fluid-filled sac that surrounds and protects the heart. A wide variety of factors can cause pericarditis, including:
- bacterial and viral infections
- injuries or surgery to the heart
- certain medications
- autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
- rarely cancer
Pericarditis can lead to painful breathing or sharp chest pain that may feel better when sitting upright and leaning forward. People with pericarditis may also experience:
- a fever
- irregular heartbeat or palpitations
- shortness of breath
- lightheadedness or dizziness
Anyone with symptoms of pericarditis should seek medical attention. Doctors can usually treat pericarditis with anti-inflammatory medications.
Injuries to the chest, such as pulled muscles, broken ribs, or a bruised chest wall, can lead to pain when breathing. This pain may occur only on the side of the injury.
Other symptoms of a chest injury may include:
- bruising or skin discoloration
- pain that radiates to the neck or back
- shortness of breath
Chest injuries can result from:
- blows and impacts to the chest
- sports injuries
- severe coughing
People with minor chest injuries can often treat themselves at home with rest and pain medications. However, individuals with serious injuries or other concerning symptoms should seek medical attention.
A doctor will typically ask a person about their symptoms, review their medical history, and perform a physical examination of their chest.
The doctor may then recommend one or more tests to help determine the cause of a person’s pain.
Possible tests include:
- Chest X-ray. X-rays create an image of the inside of the chest and allow the doctor to check for conditions, such as injuries and infections.
- CT scan. This test involves taking a series of X-rays from different angles to create more precise images. CT scans are sometimes more useful than a chest X-ray.
- Pulmonary function tests. These involve a person doing a series of breathing tests that help determine how well their lungs are functioning. Doctors can use the results to diagnose respiratory conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Electrocardiogram (ECG). Doctors use an ECG to measure the electrical activity of a person’s heart, which can help diagnose heart problems.
- Pulse oximetry. Pulse oximetry measures oxygen levels in the blood. Low levels of oxygen can indicate certain respiratory conditions, such as a pneumothorax or pneumonia.
Medical treatment for people with painful respiration depends on the underlying cause. However, home treatment may help relieve chest pain and other symptoms.
People who experience pain when breathing may wish to try:
- Pain medications. Over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, can help reduce pain from conditions such as costochondritis and minor chest injuries.
- Changing positions. Leaning forward or sitting upright can sometimes help relieve chest pain from conditions such as pericarditis.
- Breathing more slowly. Relaxing the chest and breathing more slowly may help ease symptoms in some people.
- Cough suppressants. If symptoms also include coughing, taking OTC cough medications may help to reduce discomfort.
Eating a healthful diet can reduce the risk of some conditions that cause painful respiration.
Preventing painful respiration is not always possible. Conditions that can lead to painful breathing do not always have a clear cause, which makes them hard for a person to prevent.
However, some lifestyle interventions can help reduce the risk of infections and other chest problems that can lead to painful respiration. These can include:
- quitting smoking
- practicing good hygiene, such as regularly washing hands
- having an annual flu shot
- eating a balanced and healthful diet
- doing regular exercise
- getting enough sleep
Painful respiration is not a disease itself but usually a symptom of another condition. Causes can range from mild to severe and can include chest injuries, infections, and inflammation.
It is generally advisable for people with painful breathing to see a doctor for an evaluation. Anyone with chest pain as well as difficulty breathing should seek immediate medical attention.