It’s not uncommon to feel discomfort, stiffness, or soreness after a nasty coughing attack. Such forceful expulsions require your chest and rib cage muscles to rapidly contract. Then, air rushes out of the lungs traveling just short of the speed of sound to clean the airways of mucus and other irritants.  So, considering this, is it typical to experience severe pain after coughing? This article will answer this and other related questions by digging further into why it hurts when you cough, how much pain is normal, and when it is time to visit your doctor.

If It Hurts When I Cough, Should I Be Worried?

Being aware of coughs, and other diseases, early in their development is an important part of remaining healthy. To that end, if you have pain after you cough, it is not unreasonable to monitor it. The pain may come from you coughing more than usual due to an infection or coughing harder than normal to get out a blockage. Potential causes of painful coughs include:

  • Common cold
  • Flu
  • Stomach acid reflux
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Acute bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Cancer

What Different Kinds of Cough-Related Pain Are There?

If you have pain after you cough, make a note of its location and type – is it in your chest, abdomen, or head? Is it sharp and localized or duller and spread out?

When forceful, repeated coughs happen, different sites may become sore, such as: 

  • The airways become irritated
  • The rib muscles used to cough become sore
  • Respiratory organs and tissues may become damaged and inflamed

Let’s look more closely at some common body parts involved:

Rib Pain

When you cough and feel a sharp pain or hear a cracking or popping sound, you may have stretched or injured one of your rib cage’s intercostal muscles. These muscles lie between your ribs, connecting them. They assist you in breathing and balancing your upper body. 

It’s possible that coughing is causing your intercostal muscles to work too hard, making them hurt. The more you cough, the more your intercostal muscles are put to work and the repeated contractions can stretch, pull, or otherwise damage these muscles.

Abdominal Pain

Internal organ disorders are other possible causes of abdominal pain during coughing. A few examples include appendicitis, kidney stones, and pancreatitis.

Coughing can induce discomfort in these already afflicted organs, resulting in additional pain in the abdomen region. 

In these situations, a doctor should be consulted to investigate these issues and prescribe treatment that not only alleviates the coughing but also addresses the underlying issue

Back Pain

When you cough, your entire body flexes, including your back; hence you may find your shoulders hunching up and your body slumping forward. 

As a result, coughing can put pressure on your back, resulting in lower back pain and in extreme cases a torn ligament or a slipped disc.

Head Pain

There are two types of headaches triggered by coughing

  • Primary cough headaches
  • Secondary cough headaches

Primary cough headaches are typically not problematic and are quite easily treatable. However, secondary cough headaches can be severe and may indicate brain disease. 

Therefore, cough-related headaches should always be checked out by a doctor to rule out any significant complications.

For more information on cough-related headaches, read this article: Does coughing cause headaches?

General Muscle Pain

It’s perfectly normal for muscles all over your body to be sore after a coughing fit or an illness that has caused you to cough for a long time. 

Imagine your muscles tightening and not relaxing. This is exactly how the coughing reflex affects your muscles. 

This kind of tension can result in considerable fatigue and pain throughout your body.

Should I See a Doctor if It Hurts When I Cough?

Regular examinations to identify and treat coughs as soon as symptoms appear are some of the most effective strategies to stay ahead of infection.

Seek immediate help if the cough is accompanied by:

  • Coughing up blood
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever

Moreover, an ‘acute’ cough lasts less than three weeks. It’s a ‘chronic’ or ‘persistent’ cough if you’ve had it for three weeks or longer. If you’ve had a cough for more than three weeks, see your doctor (even if you are only coughing and you don’t think you are sick).

You should also pay attention to any painful cough or related condition, including:

  • Pain at the top of your back
  • Swelling or deformity in the back 
  • After a serious injury, there is a lot of pain.
  • Sneezing or bowel motions make the pain greater.
  • Pain that worsens at night and doesn’t seem to improve with rest

How Do I Stop the Pain If It Hurts When I Cough?

So, what are our options for dealing with these painful coughs? If the cough is giving you a great deal of discomfort, here are a few things you can do to help with the pain:

Treat your cough – If you have a cold, flu, or upper respiratory infection, attempt to treat the cough directly by frequently drinking warm liquids, sucking on cough drops, or mixing a teaspoon of honey into your tea. Cough medication, decongestants, and steam inhalation can all also aid with cough relief.

Compression – Firmly press a small pillow or cushion on your chest in the place that aches the most for quick relief from abrupt, unpredictable coughing. This decreases muscle tension and may help to alleviate discomfort.

Pain relievers – Over-the-counter discomfort relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can help with rib pain.

Cough cautiously – Sit on a chair and lean forward slightly if you sense a coughing attack coming on. Cough a couple of times into a tissue while pressing your arm against your tummy. Take a deep breath and relax for a moment to help ease the tension from your intercostal muscles.

Heat – To relieve discomfort and calm strained rib muscles, place a heating pad over the painful area.

Cold  – If the heat doesn’t help or if you know the area is inflamed (for example from a specific incident) applying a cold compress to the hurting area, even a bag of frozen foodstuff can provide a lot of relief.

Creams/gels  – Applying a cream or gel meant to alleviate muscle discomfort to your chest may assist if your ribs are sore from coughing. Several such medicines are available at your local pharmacy, including lotions containing arnica, a herb that can help relieve pain.

Rest – The best treatments for painful bodies are rest and recovery.

Always consult with your doctor if you are experiencing pain due to coughing.

Learn more about cough-related pain and its science on our Medium Page.


If you’re feeling fine and the cough isn’t bothering you, you may not need to do anything other than wait for it to go away. While you wait for it to go away on its own, try the above-mentioned simple alternatives. 

If your cough lasts longer than three weeks and does not improve, see your doctor.