Hurts to take a deep breath? Find out what might be causing it

August 2, 2021
Man taking a deep breath - title image for

Taking a deep breath only to be met with a sharp pain is an incredibly alarming sensation. If you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance you just experienced this yourself, hopped on Google, and started searching for answers. It’s natural to worry about pain, especially when it’s connected to your breathing, but don’t panic yet. Pleurisy, the type of pain the occurs when taking a deep breath, can be linked to a wide range of causes, from mild to severe.

When it’s time to call a doctor:

Before you read through all the possible causes of pleurisy, you should determine it you need to call a doctor now. Read through the following list and see if anything applies to you.

  • The pain is so severe you’re unable to function normally
  • The pain has persisted for days already
  • You’re unable to breathe
  • You are coughing up blood
  • You feel as though you might faint or have already fainted
  • You have a high fever

If any of the above list applies to you, you should seek medical attention. Regardless of what the cause may be, these symptoms are worrying enough that they should not be ignored. Your doctor will be able to run proper tests and determine the cause, so you may be able to find relief.

Potential causes

You should never try to self-diagnose yourself, but it’s natural to wonder what a potential cause of your pain is, especially if it’s minor, and you’ve elected to wait a day or two before seeing a doctor.

It’s interesting to note that pain experienced when taking a deep breath does not occur within the lungs, even if it feels like it is. This is because the lungs themselves do not have pain receptors. The pain can occur in the pleura, a membrane that lines the lungs, and the name that the term pleurisy is derived from. Since pleurisy doesn’t actually occur within the lungs, it can be caused by a wide range of factors taking place within the lungs, pleura, or nearby organs and tissues. Some of the most common tissues and organs to affect the pleura are the heart, the esophagus, breasts, chest muscles, and the spine.

Bacterial / viral infections

If your pain is short-term and not very severe, there’s always a chance it’s a bacterial or viral infection that, with some rest, can go away in a couple of days. However, it can also be an indicator of more serious infections like pneumonia, tuberculosis, bronchitis, or shingles. In some cases, you may notice that you have more difficulty breathing when lying down. This can be an indicator that your pain is caused by an infection. Due to the serious nature of these conditions, you shouldn’t wait to see a doctor if the pain worsens or lasts more than a couple of days.

Chronic lung conditions

Another potential cause of pain when taking a deep breath is lung conditions. Some of these lung conditions are long-term diseases such as COPD, asthma, and empyema.

Lung injury

Although it’s also possible that physical injuries like a broken rib or a collapsed lung can cause similar pain. If taking a deep breath leads to fits of coughing, as well as pain, it may indicate that a lung injury is the underlying cause. If you experience symptoms after undergoing some sort of physical trauma, such as force to the chest or inhaling excessive smoke, you should let your doctor know, as it may have caused your pain.

Heart disease

One of the most serious causes of pain when taking a deep breath is heart disease. If you find yourself out of breath frequently, even when you haven’t done anything physically exerting, it could be an indicator of an underlying heart problem. In some serious cases, your pain may be accompanied by burning sensations, sweating, nausea, and pain that moves into the jaw, arm, or shoulder. If you experience any of these symptoms alongside breathing pain, you should seek medical attention, as these can indicate a heart attack.


Due to the wide range of potential conditions that can cause pain while taking deep breaths, the types of treatment you may encounter will also vary widely. Your doctor will determine the best treatment after making a proper diagnosis. Usually this will involve chest X-rays, blood tests, or CT scans, although in some cases additional tests may be necessary.

In the short-term, especially if the pain is not serious or long-lasting, you may be able to cope with it at home using some simple tricks. One of the best, and easiest tricks, is to sit down and focus on your breathing. Taking regular controlled breaths while relaxing the rest of your body may help ease symptoms. You may also wish to try meditation, or exercises like yoga, as these can help improve your breathing and aid relaxation.

Regardless of the underlying cause, there are some long-term considerations that anyone with chest pain related to breathing should keep in mind. Limiting your exposure to cigarette smoke, pollution in the air, and harmful fumes will improve your lung health and in many cases reduce pain associated with breathing. If your pain is caused by heart problems, you will also benefit from losing weight, reducing your blood pressure, and exercising daily.

The bottom line

Even now that you know the common causes of pain while breathing, and know some tips to help reduce the pain, this kind of discomfort is no joke. Any type of chest pain can be an indicator of serious issues, and the only way to be sure you’re handling it properly is by going to see a doctor. This is especially true if the pain doesn’t go away quickly on its own or if it's so severe that it interferes with your usual activities.

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