There are many possible causes of a burning sensation in the lungs. Although this symptom is not usually a cause for concern, it can sometimes indicate a severe condition that requires treatment.

A burning pain in the chest area can be concerning, particularly if the cause is unknown. However, many causes are relatively benign.

In this article, we look at some of the common causes of a burning sensation in the lungs and explain when a person needs emergency medical help.

We also look at the current evidence linking burning chest pain to COVID-19, the disease that the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, causes.

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Pain in the chest might be related to any of the organs and systems in that part of the body. These include the ribcage, lungs, heart, and esophagus (food pipe), which is the tube that connects the throat and stomach.

It is not unusual to experience a burning sensation in the lungs, and it is not usually anything serious. However, in some cases, it may be a sign of a heart attack.

A heart attack happens when the heart stops receiving the oxygen-rich blood that it needs to survive. This medical emergency requires immediate attention.

Symptoms of a heart attack in males

For males, the symptoms of a heart attack might include:

  • pain or discomfort in the center of the chest, which may feel like burning, pressure, or squeezing
  • pain that lasts more than a few minutes or comes and goes over time
  • pain or discomfort in one or both arms or the back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • shortness of breath
  • cold sweat
  • nausea
  • lightheadedness

Symptoms of a heart attack in females

As well as experiencing chest pain or discomfort, a female who is having a heart attack is more likely to experience:

  • shortness of breath
  • nausea or vomiting
  • pain in the jaw
  • pain in the back

People should call 911 right away if they or someone else is experiencing symptoms of a heart attack.

A diverse range of factors can cause burning pain in the chest.

Heartburn

Heartburn, or acid indigestion, happens when stomach acid rises into the esophagus.

It can cause a painful, burning sensation in the chest, neck, throat, or jaw. If the pain goes away when the person belches, heartburn is the likely cause.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications can help ease the symptoms of heartburn.

Chest infection

Common colds, bronchitis, and pneumonia are all examples of chest infections. As well as chest pain, common symptoms include:

Doctors may recommend antibiotics to treat a bacterial chest infection.

Asthma attack

Asthma is a long-term condition. People with asthma have inflamed bronchial tubes. These are the passageways that carry air in and out of the lungs.

An asthma attack happens when the muscles around the tubes tighten, making the air passages really narrow.

A person who is having an asthma attack may feel as though someone is sitting on their chest.

The episode might last just a few minutes and get better on its own, or it might go on for hours. Sometimes, people find it so hard to breathe that they need to go to the hospital for treatment.

People with asthma usually have an inhaler that helps relax the muscles around the tubes, allowing air to get in and out of the lungs more easily.

Less common conditions may also cause a burning sensation in the lungs.

Pulmonary embolism

A pulmonary embolism is a blockage in the arteries that supply the lungs with the blood they need to survive.

Deep vein thrombosis, which is a blood clot in the leg, is a common cause of a pulmonary embolism. The pulmonary embolism happens if a blood clot breaks loose, starts circulating the body, and gets stuck in a lung artery, blocking the blood flow.

It is a very serious condition that can cause permanent damage to the lungs and other organs.

The symptoms of a pulmonary embolism might include:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing up blood

Doctors will usually treat the problem with medication to thin the blood or dissolve the clot.

They may also recommend a catheter-assisted thrombus removal. This surgical procedure involves using a flexible tube to reach into the lung and remove the clot.

Lung cancer

In rare cases, a burning sensation in the chest may be a sign of lung cancer.

The symptoms are different for everyone, and some people will have no symptoms at all. Those who do might experience:

  • a pain in the chest that gets worse with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing
  • a cough that does not go away or keeps getting worse
  • appetite loss
  • tiredness or weakness
  • wheezing
  • chest infections that keep coming back

The type and severity of the cancer will determine the treatment options.

Treatment will usually involve a combination of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery. Sometimes, treatment is not appropriate, and doctors will focus on alleviating the symptoms of the cancer.

Researchers do not yet know whether COVID-19 can cause burning chest pain, but some scientists have noticed a link between this symptom and the disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chest pain is a possible symptom of COVID-19.

Other symptoms may include:

  • fever or chills
  • cough
  • shortness of breath
  • new loss of taste or smell
  • tiredness
  • muscle aches
  • a headache
  • a sore throat
  • a stuffy or runny nose
  • nausea or vomiting
  • diarrhea

To determine why a person is experiencing a burning pain in their chest, a doctor will first ask them about the symptoms and their personal and family’s medical history.

They may use a stethoscope to listen to the chest and carry out blood tests, X-rays, and other tests.

If the doctor suspects COVID-19, they will ask the person to take a swab test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

OTC pain relief medications can help ease mild chest pain if it is due to heartburn, but in most cases, people should consider speaking to a doctor.

The American Heart Association (AHA) advise that people who experience heartburn can reduce their symptoms by:

  • avoiding alcohol and cigarettes
  • refraining from taking aspirin or other anti-inflammatory medication
  • avoiding drinking citrus juices
  • stopping eating a few hours before bedtime
  • raising the head of the bed by about 6 inches, if heartburn occurs at night
  • taking OTC medications for indigestion

There are many possible causes of a burning sensation in the chest. Most are nothing to worry about, such as heartburn.

However, some are a medical emergency, such as a heart attack.

Anyone who thinks that they or someone else might be having a heart attack should call 911 right away.

Doctors are not yet sure whether chest pain is a symptom of COVID-19, but some believe that it is.

Anyone who suspects that they have COVID-19 should talk to a doctor.