Chest Pain When Breathing: Top 9 Causes (& What to Do)

Updated in October 2023

Chest pain when breathing is frequently a result of anxiety or stressful situations, therefore it is not always a concerning sign. 

Nonetheless, this type of pain may be associated with other health conditions that affect the lungs, muscles or even the heart. Therefore, if you feel pain with breathing that lasts for over 24 hours, or if it occurs with other symptoms like shortness of breath or dizziness, you should see your doctor for a thorough assessment. 

A doctor should identify the underlying cause based on his or her physical assessment, although further testing may be needed to confirm a diagnosis. Depending on the cause, treatment should be initiated as necessary. 

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The most common causes of chest pain when breathing include: 

1. Gas

Excess gas is one of the main causes of pain when breathing, as built-up gases are capable of putting pressure on the abdominal organs. This leads pain that radiates to the chest and can be felt when breathing.

Read more about what can cause excess gas and what to do.

What to do: You can help to distribute excess, built-up gas by massaging the abdomen. There also home remedies for gas that you can prepare to naturally combat bloating and discomfort.

Also be sure to reduce your intake of foods that cause gas in your day-to-day diet.

2. Anxiety attacks

Anxiety attacks are characterized by symptoms like increased heart rate and breathing, feeling hot, sweating and chest pain that can worsen with breathing. Anxiety attacks normally occur in people who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder. Learn more about the symptoms of an anxiety attack and how to stop one. 

What to do: When experiencing an anxiety attack, you should divert your attention to something else, away from what triggered the anxiety, like participating in an activity you enjoy. Breathing exercises may also help to control shortness of breath. Inhale slowly through your nose and exhale through your mouth until the anxiety starts to reduce. Check-out these soothing teas for anxiety that can also help to keep you calm. 

3. Muscular injury

Chest pain when breathing is common in muscular injuries and can be a result of excessive force when exercising, playing sports, picking up heavy objects, or coughing. You can also have muscle pain after a day of poor posture or when experiencing stress. Generally, the pain is localized to the center of the chest, over the ribs, or it can be felt in your back. 

What to do: You are advised to rest and avoid heavy lifting while recovering. You can apply a cold compress to help reduce any discomfort. You should see a doctor if the pain is intense, as you may need additional treatment. 

If the pain is a result of exercising, you should see a personal trainer for guidance on how to prevent these types of injuries in the future. These chest exercises can help you to strengthen the chest muscles, which can also help to protect you from further injury. 

4. Costochondritis

Costochondritis can also cause chest pain with breathing. This condition is characterized by inflammation of the cartilage that connects the sternum to the upper ribs. In addition to pain with breathing, common symptoms including, chest pain, shortness of breath and sternal pain.

What to do: In some cases, the pain resolves on its own after rest and does not require any medical intervention. The pain is often aggravated with moving, and therefore you are advised to avoid any strenuous activity. If the pain is very intense, however, you should see a doctor to confirm a diagnosis and initiate treatment. 

5. Cold and flu

A cold or flu virus can cause chest pain when breathing due to accumulated secretions in along the respiratory tract. It can present with symptoms like coughing, runny nose, body pain, fatigue and, in some cases, fever. Read more about the difference between a cold and a flu and how they can present.

What to do: Symptoms usually start to improve with rest and increased fluid intake, as these interventinos help to keep the respiratory tract moist and help to clear out secretions. It is important to maintain a healthy diet when recovering to strengthen your immune system. You can incorporate these home remedies for the cold and flu into your treatment plan

6. Lung disease

It is common for lung diseases like asthma, pneumonia, a pulmonary embolism or lung cancer to be associated with chest pain when breathing. Pain is particularly felt in the back, as a large portion of the lungs are found in this area. 

Asthma is a condition associated with symptoms like shortness of breath and coughing, as well as pain when breathing. Although the pain may be a symptom of a temporary condition, like a cold or flu, it may occur with more serious conditions, like pneumonia. Pneumonia may cause symptoms like coughing, runny nose, fever and blood-tinged sputum. Learn more about the symptoms of a lung infection you should monitor for and report to a doctor.

On the other hand, chest pain when breathing may occur with a pulmonary embolism, which is a medical emergency in which a blood vessel in the lungs becomes obstructed with a clot. In this case, the pain worsens very quickly, and causes coughing with blood and difficulty breathing. If you suspect a pulmonary embolism, you should proceed immediately to the hospital. 

Read more about other conditions that can cause lung pain.

What to do: Treatment will depend on the underlying lung disease, and should be monitored by a doctor once a diagnosis is confirmed. The doctor may order further testing, like a chest x-ray or CT scan. In serious cases, in which the patient presents with severe shortness of breath or if there is a suspicion for pneumonia or a pulmonary embolism, you should go straight to the hospital. 

7. Pneumothorax

A pneumothorax is characterized by the presence of air in the pleural space, which is found between the chest wall and the lung. This air increases pressure on the lung, which causes the lung to collapse. This can cause symptoms like severe difficulty breathing, coughing, chest pain and pain with breathing.

This condition is more common following a chest injury, like after a fall or perforation, however it can occur as a consequence of pneumonia or asthma. 

What to do: If you suspect a pneumothorax, you should go to the hospital for testing and to confirm a diagnosis. Treatment is aimed at removing the excess air and relieving pressure on the long, and usually involves the aspiration of the air with a needle.

8. Pleurisy

Chest pain when breathing is a very common symptom of pleurisy. This condition is characterized by inflammation of the pleura, which is the membrane that lines the lungs and the interior chest wall. Pain is usually more intense when inhaling, because the lung is filling with air and the pleura touches the surrounding organs. 

Other common symptoms include difficulty breathing, coughing, and pain felt around the chest and ribs. 

What to do: You should go to the hospital for assessment of your symptoms. He or she will initiate treatment, which may include medications like anti-inflammatories. 

9. Pericarditis

Chest pain when breathing may be associated with pericarditis, which is an inflammation of the heart lining. It can cause intense chest pain, especially when taking a deep breath. Pericarditis is usually a sequela of another condition, like lupus, an infection or a car accident. 

What to do: Treatment should be initiated by a cardiologist, and will depend on the symptoms and presentation of each person. In the meantime, rest is very important for a full recovery. 

Read more about what causes sternum pain and how it is assessed and diagnosed.

When to see a doctor

It is important to go to the hospital if you have any chest pain with breathing that lasts for more than 24 hours, especially if  pain is accompanied by other symptoms, like sweats, difficulty breathing, dizziness or chest pain. A full assessment and testing can help to identify the underlying cause, which will guide the treatment as necessary.