A sharp pain in the chest or ribs when breathing in may be due to a muscle strain or anxiety. But, it can sometimes indicate an injury, pneumonia, pleurisy, or pericarditis, which may need urgent medical attention.

Pain around the chest and ribs will often resolve on its own or with minimal treatment. However, it can occasionally be an emergency, requiring urgent medical intervention.

In this article, we discuss seven possible causes of sharp pain when breathing in and explain when to seek medical attention.

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Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that causes inflammation of the air sacs, which fill up with fluid or pus. Pneumonia occurs as a result of bacterial, viral, or fungal infection. The severity of the condition depends on a person’s age and overall health.

People with pneumonia often experience chest pain when breathing in. The other symptoms, which may range from mild to severe, include:

  • a cough
  • coughing up sputum, a green or rusty phlegm, from the lungs
  • high fever
  • chills
  • difficulty breathing
  • fatigue
  • sweating
  • fast heartbeat

Both the type of pneumonia and the severity of the condition will determine the treatment options.

  • For bacterial pneumonia, which is the most common form, antibiotics may help treat the symptoms.
  • Antiviral medications, rest, and a high intake of fluids may help treat pneumonia resulting from a virus.
  • Antifungal medications may help treat fungal types of pneumonia.

A doctor may also recommend over-the-counter (OTC) medications to reduce the symptoms of pneumonia.

Learn more about pneumonia here.

Pneumothorax, also known as a collapsed lung, occurs when air enters the pleural cavity, which is a space between the lungs and chest wall. The air accumulation can increase pressure in the pleural cavity, making part of a lung or even an entire lung collapse.

Pneumothorax can occur as a result of a chest injury or an underlying lung disease, such as tuberculosis.

People with pneumothorax may experience sharp pain in the chest that worsens during breathing or coughing. The degree of collapse determines the signs and symptoms of pneumothorax.

These may include:

  • shortness of breath
  • sudden chest pain
  • tightness in the chest
  • heart palpitations
  • fatigue
  • cyanosis, which is where the skin or lips turn slightly blue

Treatment for pneumothorax involves inserting a chest tube or needle to remove excess air from the pleural cavity. For mild cases, the condition may heal without this procedure being necessary.

Learn more about pneumothorax here.

Pleurisy is an inflammation of the pleura, a tissue that lines the chest cavity and covers the outside surface of the lungs. Pleurisy often results from viral or bacterial infection, with viral pleurisy being among the most common causes. People with pleurisy tend to experience sharp pain, particularly in the chest, when inhaling.

Symptoms of pleurisy include:

  • sharp pain in the chest that worsens during breathing
  • pain that radiates to the shoulders and back
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing

The treatment for pleurisy will depend on the cause of the underlying condition. For instance, if the condition is due to a bacterial infection, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics to manage the symptoms.

For the pain and inflammation that pleurisy causes, a doctor will recommend nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen.

Learn more about pleurisy here.

Costochondritis is an inflammation of the cartilage, a tissue that connects the breastbone and ribs. The chest pain that costochondritis causes can range from mild to severe.

People with costochondritis often experience chest pain, which may radiate to the back.

The exact cause of costochondritis is unclear. However, the condition may result from a chest injury, strenuous exercise, severe coughing, or a joint infection.

Costochondritis typically heals on its own. However, a doctor may prescribe NSAIDs to relieve pain. Physical therapy, including stretching exercises and nerve stimulation, may also be helpful, as may heat treatment.

If other measures do not work, a doctor might recommend injecting corticosteroids or numbing medication directly into the affected area.

Learn more about costochondritis here.

A traumatic injury to the chest may result from a sports-related incident, a surgical procedure, or an accident, such as a fall from a height. Approximately two-thirds of people who experience physical trauma have chest trauma, with the severity ranging from a rib fracture to injury of the heart.

Chest trauma can lead to sharp pain when breathing in. Other symptoms of chest trauma may include:

  • shortness of breath
  • pain that radiates to the neck or back
  • coughing up blood
  • bruising of the chest wall

Doctors will determine the best treatment for chest trauma based on the cause and severity. For instance, if a person is gasping for air, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) will likely be the first approach. People with chest trauma should seek immediate medical attention.

Learn more about broken ribs here.

Severe stress and anxiety may cause anxiety attacks, a possible symptom of which is sharp pain when breathing in.

An anxiety attack can produce a stabbing, needle-like sensation in the middle of the chest. The dread of an upcoming event or a fear that something could happen typically triggers the condition. People may experience the following symptoms during an anxiety attack:

  • chest pain
  • heart palpitations
  • difficulty breathing
  • lightheadedness
  • sweating
  • a headache

Treatment options for anxiety-related disorders include:

Anyone considering seeking professional help should ensure that they select a well-trained and qualified professional.

Learn more about anxiety attacks here.

Pericarditis is an inflammation of the pericardium, the sac-like tissue surrounding the heart. The cause of pericarditis remains unclear, but viral infections are a common cause. Other factors may also cause pericarditis, including:

People with pericarditis experience sharp pain when breathing in or a dull ache that may feel better when sitting upright or leaning forward. The pain may also radiate to the left shoulder and neck. Other symptoms of pericarditis can include:

  • fever
  • shortness of breath
  • lightheadedness
  • heart palpitations
  • swelling of the abdomen and legs
  • a cough

The best treatment for pericarditis depends on the cause and severity of the condition. If the condition is mild, it usually gets better on its own. For more severe cases, a doctor may prescribe OTC pain relievers and corticosteroids to reduce inflammation.

Learn more about pericarditis here.

Sharp pain when breathing in can sometimes be a sign of a life threatening condition, such as a heart attack. A person should speak with a doctor about any unexplained sharp pain when breathing in, particularly if it occurs alongside the following symptoms:

  • difficulty breathing
  • chest tightness or pain
  • severe shortness of breath
  • rapid breathing
  • air hunger, which refers to the inability to breathe in sufficient air
  • sudden dizziness
  • fever
  • excessive sweating

Experiencing sharp pain when breathing in can be worrying. Although the condition may not be a cause for alarm — at least in most cases — it can sometimes be a sign of a severe illness.

The condition may arise due to various causes, including chest trauma and other medical conditions, such as pneumonia.

Anyone experiencing sharp pain when breathing in should speak with a doctor, who will likely want to carry out an evaluation to diagnose the cause. Once they have confirmed this, the doctor will be able to put a treatment plan in place.