by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

Breathing is so natural, so automatic. The only time we notice it is if we’re not getting enough oxygen or it’s painful to breathe (or if you start thinking about it, like you are right now).

If breathing is painful, we start holding our breath or breathing less deeply, which makes us want to breathe even more. If this happens to you and you can’t get medical help, you’ll want to know how to stop this cycle.

There are some simple things that can help, but in the end, professional treatment may be the only thing that fixes it. Depending on the cause, you may need quick treatment for more than just painful breathing anyway.

What Causes Painful Breathing

In doctor language, painful breathing is called pleuritic chest pain. If the pain is caused by inflammation of the pleura (the lining of the lung and the lining of the inside of the chest wall), we call it pleurisy. That’s what this post is about—pleurisy.

Normally, every time we breathe, the moist, pleural surfaces glide against each together so smoothly we never even notice. But if something causes them to get inflamed, every breath feels like two sores rubbing against each other.

Now if you can’t get to a doctor and your breathing becomes painful, one thing you’re going to have to do, no matter the cause, is slow down your activity so you don’t have to breathe as hard. A second thing you can do is take an anti-inflammatory such as Advil (ibuprofen) or Aleve (naproxen), or maybe you’re already on one for arthritis.

With pneumonia, if an exam reveals decreased breath sounds in one of the lungs, you have a pneumothorax, or collapsed lung. Fluid—perhaps pus—has gotten into the pleural space.

After that, you’re going to have to go after the source—whatever’s causing the inflammation—such as:

1. Pneumonia. Bacterial and viral infections that cause pneumonia can sometimes cause painful breathing.

Symptoms: Cough, muscle aches, shortness of breath.

Signs: Fever. With a stethoscope or an ear to the chest you may hear rales like I describe in my pneumonia post. If fluid, such pus, gets in the pleural space, the breath sounds may be decreased on that side of the chest.

Treatment: Antibiotics as described in my pneumonia post.

2. Viruses. Even without pneumonia, a viral infection such as the flu, but also many others, can cause inflammation of the lining of the lungs and chest wall.

Symptoms: Muscle aches, sore throat, headaches, runny or stopped up nose, cough.

Signs: Fever. With a stethoscope or an ear on the chest, sometimes you can hear a “rub.” It sounds kind of like two pieces of leather rubbing against each other with each breath.

Treatment: Treat the symptoms, and beef up your immunity as best you can. (Fodder for a future post.)

3. Tuberculosis. Yes, it’s still around. Over ten thousand cases are reported each year in the U.S. Worldwide it’s in the millions.

Symptoms: Similar to pneumonia

Signs: Similar to pneumonia

Treatment: Here’s the big difference. TB has to be treated for several months with medications you’re not likely to have in your medical kit. So, unless you know it’s TB, all you can do is treat it as pneumonia. If it’s TB, it’s not going to get better, and probably will get worse until you get expert help.

4. Pulmonary emboli: Sometimes a blood clot in a leg vein can flick off a smaller piece that travels to the heart. The heart then pumps this small clot (called an embolus) into a lung blood vessel. The blood supply to this area of the lung is cut off. This can cause a chain reaction of dead lung tissue and swelling and is very dangerous.

Symptoms: Besides the painful breathing, you may become very short of breath.

Signs: If you have a sore, swollen calf this could be the source. But, sometimes, there is no warning. Blood clots are very hard to diagnose without specialized testing.

Treatment: Rest and transferring to a medical facility as quickly as possible.

Have you ever had pleurisy? What was the cause? How was it treated?

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Lung-anatomy illustration by Yori Kato on Flickr. Pneumothorax illustration by Petrus Adamus and released under CC BY-SA 3.0.