What’s Causing a Bubbling Feeling in My Chest?

Medically reviewed by Suzanne Falck, MD on December 1, 2017 — Written by Kathryn Watson

Overview

Sharp, sudden pain in your chest can sometimes feel like a cracking or compression, as if a bubble is about to pop under your ribs. This kind of pain can be a symptom of several conditions, ranging in seriousness. Some of these conditions are cause for concern, while others may resolve on their own.

Read on to learn some common causes for the feeling of bubbling in your chest. You should always see a doctor for diagnosis if you’re having this kind of pain.

Precordial catch syndrome

Precordial catch syndrome causes chest pain when you take a breath. It mostly happens to people in their adolescence or early 20s. The pain occurs with no warning and is sharp and sudden. It can happen once a week or only once and never again.

Believe it or not, this syndrome isn’t usually cause for concern. Precordial catch syndrome can be caused by nerves in your outer chest cavity becoming irritated or compressed.

This condition does need to be diagnosed by a doctor to rule out more serious causes for your pain. But there’s no treatment for precordial catch syndrome, and most people simply stop having symptoms as they grow older.

GERD

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a digestive condition that can cause a bubbling feeling in your chest. When you have GERD, stomach acid flows into your esophagus tube. The stomach acid can cause a burning pain in your chest called acid reflux . Other symptoms of GERD include difficulty swallowing and feeling like you have a lump in your throat.

GERD is diagnosed mostly by symptoms. Common treatments include changes in diet and lifestyle , over-the-counter antacids , and medications to block your body’s acid production.

Dyspepsia

Dyspepsia, also called indigestion , can cause:

  • nausea
  • bloating
  • acid reflux

It can also cause a bubbling and gurgling feeling in your chest.

Dyspepsia can be caused by an overgrowth of a bacteria called H. pylori , a strain of bacteria that more than half of the people on earth have in their bodies. This condition can also be caused by excessive drinking and by taking over-the-counter painkillers frequently on an empty stomach.

An endoscopy , blood test, or stool sample can help diagnosis certain underlying causes of dyspepsia. Dyspepsia is treated by making food choices that help repair and soothe the stomach lining. Antacids and other drugs might also be prescribed.

Pleural effusion

Pleural effusion is fluid that’s trapped in the tissue between your lung and the chest wall. This fluid can cause symptoms like a bubbling in your chest and shortness of breath.

This condition is a symptom of another health condition. Pneumonia , congestive heart failure , cancer , and trauma to the chest cavity can all result in a pleural effusion. Treatments for pleural effusion vary according to the cause.

Gallbladder inflammation

Inflammation of your gallbladder can be caused by:

  • gallstones
  • an infection
  • blocked bile ducts

Inflammation of this organ can cause a feeling of pain or pressure that begins in your abdomen and spreads to your back and shoulders.

Blood tests, an ultrasound, or a CT scan will be used to determine if and why your gallbladder is inflamed. Your doctor will then recommend:

  • antibiotics
  • pain medication
  • a procedure to remove the gallstones, the gallbladder itself , or the blockage that’s causing the inflammation

Asthma

The symptoms of asthma can feel like a bubbling pain in your chest . Asthma is a lung condition that inflames your airways and makes it hard to breathe. Asthma flare-ups can be triggered by the following, along with other causes:

  • exercise
  • weather
  • allergies

Along with a bubbling in your chest, an asthma attack can also cause you to wheeze, cough, or feel a tight compression around your lungs. Asthma is diagnosed by a lung function test that your doctor will give you. Sometimes you’ll also need to see an allergist to determine what kind of irritants are triggering your asthma flare-ups. The most common treatment is inhaling corticosteroids regularly and taking other medications if your asthma flares up, and trying to avoid the circumstances that aggravate your asthma.

Pleurisy

Pleurisy is when the thin membrane that lines your chest cavity becomes inflamed. This can happen because of an infection, a rib fracture, inflammation, or even as a side effect of certain medications.

The symptoms of pleurisy can include:

  • coughing
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain

Pleurisy is diagnosed through a blood test to see if you have an infection. It can also be diagnosed through a chest X-ray , an electrocardiogram (EKG) , or an ultrasound . Pleurisy can usually be treated at home with an antibiotic or a period of rest.

Atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation , also called “AFib,” is a condition in which your heartbeat falls out of its normal rhythm. Symptoms of this condition include:

  • an abnormal rapid heartbeat
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • shortness of breath
  • a bubbling feeling in your chest

AFib is caused because the heart’s electrical system is misfiring, usually due to coronary heart disease or high blood pressure . Your doctor can use a physical exam or an EKG to diagnose AFib. Treatments include blood thinner medications , medications to control the heart rate, and sometimes procedures to stop the AFib and convert the heart back to its normal rhythm.

Bronchitis

Bronchitis is an inflammation of the tubes that carry air into and out of your lungs. Common symptoms include:

  • cough
  • slight fever
  • chills
  • pain in your chest

Bronchitis can be diagnosed by your doctor using a stethoscope to listen to you breathe. Sometimes other tests like a chest X-ray are needed. Acute bronchitis can be treated as a cold with over-the-counter decongestants and home remedies . Chronic bronchitis can last three months or more and sometimes calls for use of an inhaler.

Collapsed lung

When air escapes from your lung and leaks into your chest cavity, it can cause your lung (or a portion of your lung) to collapse. This leak typically occurs from an injury but can also result from a medical procedure or underlying lung damage.

A collapsed lung causes:

  • shortness of breath
  • sharp pain
  • chest tightness

Low blood pressure and rapid heart rate are other symptoms. If you have a collapsed lung, it will probably be diagnosed with a chest X-ray. Sometimes the air from your chest cavity will need to be removed with a hollow plastic tube to treat this condition.

A collapsed lung isn’t permanent. Usually a collapsed lung will improve within 48 hours with treatment.

What else could cause this?

There are other causes of bubbling in your chest that are less common. An air embolism , a lung tumor , and a rare condition called pneumomediastinum, can all cause this uncomfortable sensation. This can also be a symptom of a heart attack . Whenever you experience a bubbling feeling in your chest, it’s critical that you investigate what’s causing it to happen.

When to see a doctor

You should always see a doctor when you feel a bubbling in your chest. It may be something like GERD, but it’s important to rule out anything serious. If your chest pain comes with any of the following symptoms, you should get emergency care right away:

  • pain that spreads from your chest to your neck, jaw, or shoulders
  • shortness of breath that lasts for more than three minutes while resting
  • an irregular pulse
  • vomiting
  • a feeling of choking
  • numbness in your hand or side
  • an inability to stand or walk

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Medically reviewed by Suzanne Falck, MD on December 1, 2017 — Written by Kathryn Watson

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Breath Sounds

Medically reviewed by Judith Marcin, MD on February 27, 2018 — Written by April Kahn

What are breath sounds?

Breath sounds come from the lungs when you breathe in and out. These sounds can be heard using a stethoscope or simply when breathing.

Breath sounds can be normal or abnormal. Abnormal breath sounds can indicate a lung problem, such as:

  • obstruction
  • inflammation
  • infection
  • fluid in the lungs
  • asthma

Listening to breath sounds is an important part of diagnosing many different medical conditions.

Types of breath sounds

A normal breath sound is similar to the sound of air. However, abnormal breath sounds may include:

  • rhonchi (a low-pitched breath sound)
  • crackles (a high-pitched breath sound )
  • wheezing (a high-pitched whistling sound caused by narrowing of the bronchial tubes)
  • stridor (a harsh, vibratory sound caused by narrowing of the upper airway)

Your doctor can use a medical instrument called a stethoscope to hear breath sounds. They can hear the breath sounds by placing the stethoscope on your chest, back, or rib cage, or under your collarbone.

What are the causes of abnormal breath sounds?

Abnormal breath sounds are usually indicators of problems in the lungs or airways. The most common causes of abnormal breath sounds are:

  • pneumonia
  • heart failure
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), such as emphysema
  • asthma
  • bronchitis
  • foreign body in the lungs or airways

Various factors cause the sounds described above:

  • Rhonchi occur when air tries to pass through bronchial tubes that contain fluid or mucus.
  • Crackles occur if the small air sacs in the lungs fill with fluid and there’s any air movement in the sacs, such as when you’re breathing. The air sacs fill with fluid when a person has pneumonia or heart failure.
  • Wheezing occurs when the bronchial tubes become inflamed and narrowed.
  • Stridor occurs when the upper airway narrows.

When are breath sounds a medical emergency?

Go to the emergency room or call local emergency services if breathing difficulty comes on suddenly, is severe, or if someone stops breathing.

Cyanosis , a bluish color of skin and mucous membranes due to lack of oxygen, can occur along with abnormal breath sounds. Cyanosis involving the lips or the face is also a medical emergency.

Your doctor will also look for the following signs of an emergency:

  • nasal flaring (an enlargement of the opening of the nostrils when breathing that’s usually seen in babies and young children)
  • abdominal breathing (the use of the abdominal muscles to assist breathing)
  • accessory muscle use (the use of the neck and chest wall muscles to assist breathing)
  • stridor (indicating an upper airway obstruction)

Finding out the cause

Your doctor will review your medical history to determine what’s causing you to have abnormal breath sounds. This includes any current or past medical conditions and any medications you’re taking.

Tell your doctor when you noticed the abnormal sounds and what you were doing before you heard them. Be sure to mention any other symptoms you may be experiencing.

The doctor will order one or several tests to determine what’s causing the abnormal sound. These tests can include:

  • CT scan
  • chest X-ray
  • blood tests
  • pulmonary function test
  • sputum culture

Your doctor can use a pulmonary function test to measure:

  • how much air you inhale and exhale
  • how efficiently you inhale and exhale

A sputum culture is a test for detecting foreign organisms in the mucus of the lungs, such as abnormal bacteria or fungi. For this test, your doctor asks you to cough and then collects the sputum you cough up. This sample is then sent to a lab for analysis.

Treatment options for abnormal breath sounds

Treatment options for abnormal breath sounds depend on your diagnosis. Your doctor takes the cause and the severity of your symptoms into consideration when recommending a treatment.

Medications are often prescribed to clear up infections or to open the airways. However, in severe cases, such as fluid in the lungs or an obstruction in the airways, hospitalization may be necessary.

If you have asthma, COPD , or bronchitis, your doctor will probably prescribe breathing treatments to open the airways. People with asthma may be given an inhaler or other medications to use daily. This can prevent asthma attacks and decrease inflammation of the airways.

The takeaway

Call local emergency services or go to the nearest emergency room if someone you know:

  • has breathing difficulty that occurs suddenly
  • has severe breathing difficulty
  • has cyanosis involving the lips or the face
  • stops breathing

Make an appointment with your doctor if you think you’re having other symptoms of breathing issues, such as abnormal breath sounds. Having an open conversation with your doctor helps them to identify any health conditions in the early stages.

Medically reviewed by Judith Marcin, MD on February 27, 2018 — Written by April Kahn

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