Severe, sudden chest pain can represent a life-threatening problem. Follow this chart for more information.

Begin here
1. Is the affected person an infant or child? Yes --> See Chest Pain in Infants and Children.
No, go down
2. Do you have severe chest pain? Yes --> Go to Question 10.**
No, go down
3. Do you have symptoms of a cold or the flu, such as fever, aches, chills, runny nose and/or cough? No --> Go to Question 6.*
Yes, go down
4. Do you have a cough that produces greenish, yellowish, or tan mucus, a fever and shortness of breath? Yes --> Your symptoms may be from an infection such as PNEUMONIA. --> Pneumonia can be a serious health problem. See your doctor right away.
No, go down
5. Do you have a cough that produces a small amount of clear mucus, and does your chest hurt when you take a deep breath? Yes --> You may have VIRAL BRONCHITIS. Your pain may be caused by PLEURISY, an irritation of the lining of the lung that is usually caused by a viral infection. Hard coughing may also cause pain in the muscles and chest wall. --> Drink plenty of fluids, and try cold medicines and/or anti-inflammatory medicines to relieve your symptoms. See your doctor if the cough continues for more than a few days or if you develop a fever.

*6. Are you uncomfortable from your shortness of breath? Yes --> Go to Question 11.***
No, go down
7. Do you have a sharp pain on one side of your chest when you take a deep breath? Yes --> Your pain may indicate PNEUMOTHORAX, a condition in which air leaks from a lung and fills the chest cavity. This makes it difficult to breathe. --> See your doctor right away. Treatment of pneumothorax may require hospitalization.
No, go down
8. Do you experience shortness of breath when you are physically active and/or when you’re lying down? Yes --> You may have a serious problem, such as CONGESTIVE HEART FAILURE, ASTHMA or PULMONARY EDEMA --> See your doctor right away.
No, go down
9. Do you have pressure in your chest, shortness of breath and numbness around your lips or in your hands or feet?
Yes --> These could be symptoms of HYPERVENTILATION, an episode of overbreathing often caused by stress of anxiety. -->


If you have hyperventilated before due to stress or anxiety, your doctor may have given you information about treating yourself. Lie down, relax and try to slow your breathing. Try breathing through pursed lips (as if you were whistling), or cover your mouth and one nostril, and breathe through the other nostril.

No, go down
**10. Do you have any of the following symptoms?

  1. Crushing pain or uncomfortable pressure in the middle of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes
  2. Squeezing pain in the chest or left upper arm
  3. Sweating and nausea
  4. Severe shortness of breath
Yes --> Your pain may be from a HEART ATTACK or MYOCARDIAL INFARCTION.



No, go down
***11. Does the pain or discomfort occur only when you swallow or after you eat? Yes --> Your pain may be from an irritation of the stomach called GASTRITIS or an irritation of the esophagus called ESOPHAGITIS. A HIATAL HERNIA (a weakness in the diaphragm) or esophageal spasms may also cause this type of pain and discomfort. --> Try an antacid, and eat smaller, less spicy meals. See your doctor if the problem persists.
No, go down
12. Do you have a painful, blistering rash on your chest or back? Yes --> You may have a viral infection of the nerves and skin called SHINGLES. --> See your doctor. Shingles usually clears on its own, but medication may ease the pain and help prevent complications.
No, go down
13. Do you have back pain that radiates around to the front of your chest? Yes --> Your pain may be from a compressed nerve, possibly from a COMPRESSION FRACTURE. --> See your doctor promptly.
No, go down

For more information, please talk to your doctor. If you think your problem is serious, call right away.

This tool has been reviewed by doctors and is for general educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for medical advice. The information in this tool should not be relied upon to make decisions about your health. Always consult your family doctor with questions about your individual condition(s) and/or circumstances. Source: American Academy of Family Physicians. Family Health & Medical Guide. Dallas: Word Publishing; 1996.