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Why Do My Lungs Burn When I Run? 6 Likely Causes

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Some beginners complain that their lungs burn when running or that their lungs hurt after running. 

Even more experienced runners may find that occasionally (or sometimes frequently), their lungs burn while running. So, what causes your lungs to burn when you run?

In this article, we will discuss reasons why your lungs burn during running, aiming to answer the question: “Why do my lungs burn when I run?”

We will cover: 

  • Why Do My Lungs Burn When I Run?
  • 6 Potential Reasons Why Your Lungs Burn When Running

Let’s jump in!

A person holding their chest after running.

Why Do My Lungs Burn When I Run?

There are several potential reasons why your lungs may burn or feel like they are burning when you are running or performing some other type of vigorous aerobic exercise, such as cycling, rowing, swimming, stair climbing, or any type of HIIT workout.

Unfortunately, although some reasons why your lungs hurt after running or burn during a workout are innocuous and will either resolve on their own or are transient in nature, there are certain conditions that can cause a burning in your lungs during exercise that necessitate further investigation.

For this reason, it’s important not to ignore a burning sensation in your lungs when running, particularly if it’s frequent and seems to happen under a variety of conditions.

6 Potential Reasons Why Your Lungs Burn When Running

There are several potential reasons why your lungs might burn when working out or during or after a run. 

Here are some of the most common reasons why your lungs burn during a run:

A person hunched over with burning in their lungs when running.

#1: You’re a Beginner

The most common cause of burning lungs while running is simply due to the fact that you’re not yet in “good shape” and your body has not yet adapted to the rigors imposed by your exercise routine.

Particularly if you are pushing the pace or running at an intensity that exceeds your current comfortable workload, your lungs and surrounding intercostal muscles are needing to stretch and expand much further and faster than they are used to, and they must do so for the entire duration of your workout.

Although this type of challenge will help your lungs become stronger and more efficient, these types of adaptation take time.

You may need to back off the intensity of your workouts or incorporate a run/walk or hard/easy interval structure instead of trying to push consistently or run a long run in order to give your lungs time to recover and relax a bit as your fitness improves.

A person running in the snowfall.

#2: Running In the Cold

One of the most common reasons why your lungs may burn when running is because you are running in cold, dry air.

Fortunately, although this doesn’t make the burning sensation any less uncomfortable, it’s completely harmless, and it’s not a cause for concern.

Running outdoors in the winter exposes your respiratory system to cold, dry air. The lungs need warm and humid air, and cold air can irritate and burn your trachea (windpipe) and bronchi (airways leading into the lungs).

One of the benefits of nasal breathing during running is that the nose is able to at least partially warm, filter, and humidify the air you inhale.

Therefore, when you breathe through your nose, the air is already somewhat warm and moist when it reaches the lungs.

This will be less irritating and shocking to the airways, minimizing the magnitude of the burning sensation, even when the air is quite dry and cold.

On the other hand, mouth breathing during running doesn’t afford these same benefits. The mouth is not particularly well equipped to warm and humidify the air you breathe in, leaving any inhaled cold and dry air in its cold and dry state as it enters the passageways into your lungs. 

Again, this can irritate the delicate endothelial lining of your airways and can cause your lungs to feel like they are burning. In order to effectively humidify this dry air, the cells lining the airways must give up some of their own water, leaving them dry and irritated.

The best thing you can do to prevent your lungs from burning when running in the cold is to focus on breathing through your nose rather than your mouth. You can also wear a buff or facemask to help create a warmer environment inside your nose and mouth and prevent excess water from being exhaled into the dry environment.

A person holding their chest from acid reflux.

#3: Acid Reflux

Acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can potentially cause a burning sensation in your lungs when running or exercising, particularly if you go running too soon after eating or eat foods that trigger acid reflux, such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, or other acidic foods, soda, coffee, or fatty foods.

With acid reflux, the sphincter, or band of muscular tissue, between the stomach and esophagus is often weakened, allowing some of the acidic digestive juices that should remain in your stomach to splash upward into the esophagus and throat.

Running can exacerbate this issue because of all of the jostling and increased intra-abdominal pressure caused by your diaphragm pressing downwards, your lungs expanding, and your abdominal muscles contracting, reducing the volume in the abdominal cavity.

Although it’s relatively uncommon for the acidic digestive juices associated with acid reflux to actually infiltrate your lungs, which is termed aspiration, even the presence of these acidic fluids can irritate the tissues and nerves in the thoracic cavity or chest around your lungs.

This can cause a burning sensation in or around your heart and lungs during exercise.

Aspiration is particularly dangerous, and if you are being treated for GERD or acid reflux, it’s important to speak with your doctor about how to modify your diet and exercise routine to ensure you stay safe and reduce the risk of this rare but serious complication.

If you do not have a diagnosis of acid reflux or GERD, but you experience other signs and symptoms such as bloating or a feeling of fullness after eating even a small volume, burning or discomfort in your stomach or chest after eating, coughing, etc., you should speak with your doctor about getting an endoscopy or an evaluation by a gastroenterologist.

There are many different medications and lifestyle modifications that can be employed to help manage symptoms of GERD. 

A person using an inhaler.

#4: You Have Asthma

Runners with asthma are at an increased risk of experiencing a burning sensation in the lungs during exercise.

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that causes inflammation in the airways. 

Because the airways become more constricted and narrow, it becomes harder for oxygen to reach your lungs, and the stiffness, swelling, and irritation of your airways can make it painful for your airways and lungs to expand when you rapidly and forcefully inhale and exhale during exercise.

This can result in a variety of symptoms, such as shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and even a burning sensation in your lungs during exercise.

If you have asthma, bronchodilators such as albuterol inhalers or oral steroids can be helpful to manage your symptoms. 

If you have concerns that you might have asthma, or you already have an asthma diagnosis, but it seems to be causing issues when you run, additional treatment or adjustments to your medication may resolve the issue and will reduce the risk of more dangerous sequela such as an asthma attack. 

A person breathing hard, holding their chest.

#5: You are Recovering From an Illness

Respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold, flu, or COVID-19, can cause inflammation and irritation to your lungs and airwaves. 

Even if you have recovered from the height of your illness for a couple of days or weeks, you might have some residual irritation that can become exacerbated once you layer on the added physiological demands of running.

#6: Chronic Respiratory Illnesses

Certain chronic respiratory diseases, such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema, can cause your lungs to burn when running or your lungs to hurt after running. 

These types of conditions are associated with poor respiratory function and a general state of inflammation, irritation, and limited elasticity of your airways and alveoli, the small, delicate stacks of tissues in your lungs responsible for gas exchange.

A person holding their chest.

The added challenges of increased ventilation during running can exceed the capacity of your compromised respiratory system, causing discomfort and further irritation.

Speak with your doctor if you have concerns about these types of underlying respiratory illnesses.

Overall, it’s important to speak with your doctor if your lungs continue to burn or hurt during or after running. There may be underlying issues that need to be treated, which will make your runs safer and more enjoyable, and failing to do so may also leave you feeling unmotivated to continue with your training program. 

Now that we’ve answered, why do my lungs burn when I run, you may want to know the causes of other ailments after working out. Check out the following guides for more information:

Lightheaded After A Workout? Here’s Why You May Be Dizzy After Working Out

Nauseous After Running? 5 Potential Causes and Solutions

A person holding their chest.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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