What can cause painful breathing?

Painful breathing is a discomfort that occurs when a person inhales or exhales. Infections, musculoskeletal injuries, and heart problems can cause this pain. The lungs do not have pain receptors, so when a person experiences painful breathing, it is not the lungs that hurt. However, conditions that affect the lungs, organs, joints, or muscles within the chest cavity can cause pain when breathing.

When to get help

Painful breathing can sometimes be a sign of a life-threatening condition, such as a heart attack or pulmonary embolism. Seek immediate medical attention if pain accompanies any of the following symptoms:

  • Suffocation.
  • Loss or decreased level of consciousness.
  • Tightness or pain in the chest, especially if it spreads to the arms, back, shoulder, neck, or jaw.
  • Severe shortness of breath.
  • Blue skin, fingers, or nails.
  • Fight or gasp for air.
  • Excessive sweating
  • Sudden dizziness or feeling light-headed.


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 be made worse by inhaling. Other symptoms of pneumonia can include:

  • Cough.
  • High fever.
  • Fatigue.
  • Short of breath.

People with symptoms of pneumonia should see a doctor. Treatment depends on the cause and severity of the condition. A doctor can prescribe antibiotics for bacterial infections.

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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 can include:

  • Pain that can spread to the shoulder blades.
  • Chest pain that is worse when coughing or sneezing.
  • Short 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 be due to a chest injury, severe cough, or a respiratory infection.

Costochondritis usually causes sharp pain and tenderness around the breastbone. People may find that this pain radiates to the back and worsens with deep breathing or coughing. Costochondritis often gets better on its own, but people should see a doctor if pain interferes with daily activities.


Pneumothorax occurs when air enters the pleural space, which is the space between the chest wall and the lungs. The buildup of air increases pressure in the pleural cavity, which can cause part or all of a person’s lung to collapse.

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A chest wound, a lung injury, or a complication of lung disease, such as emphysema or tuberculosis, often causes a pneumothorax. Pneumothorax can cause chest pain that is worse with breathing or coughing. Other symptoms can include:

  • Fast heart rate
  • Bluish skin or nails.
  • Short of breath.
  • Tiredness.
  • Chest tightness.
  • Burning of the nostrils.

People with symptoms of pneumothorax should see a doctor. To prevent a person’s lung collapse, 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.
  • Injury or surgery to the heart.
  • Certain medications
  • Autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
  • Rarely cancer.

Pericarditis can lead to breathing pain or sharp chest pain that may feel better when you sit upright and lean forward. People with pericarditis may also experience:

  • Fever.
  • Irregular heartbeat or palpitations.
  • Short of breath.
  • Dizziness or vertigo

Anyone with symptoms of pericarditis should seek medical attention. Doctors can usually treat pericarditis with anti-inflammatory drugs.

Chest injuries

Injuries to the chest, such as pulled muscles, broken ribs, or a bruised chest wall, can cause pain when breathing. This pain can occur only on the side of the injury. Other symptoms of a chest injury can include:

  • Bruising or discoloration of the skin.
  • Pain that radiates to the neck or back.
    Short of breath.
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Chest injuries can result from:

  • Blows and impacts to the chest.
  • Sports injuries.
  • Severe cough
  • Surgery.
  • Falls

People with mild chest injuries can often be treated at home with pain medication and rest. However, people with serious injuries or other related symptoms should seek medical attention.


Typically, a doctor will ask a person about their symptoms, review their medical history, and perform a physical exam of the 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 a picture of the inside of the chest and allow the doctor to check for conditions, such as injuries and infections.

Computed tomography- This test involves taking a series of X-rays from different angles to create more accurate images. CT scans are sometimes more helpful than a chest X-ray.

Pulmonary function tests- This involves a person performing a series of breathing tests that help determine how well their lungs are working. Doctors can use the results to diagnose respiratory conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

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