What Is Barrel Chest?

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Barrel chest is a rounded, bulging chest that is similar in shape to a barrel. While not technically a medical term, barrel chest is often used by healthcare providers to describe a physical characteristic consistent with cases of late-stage emphysema, in which the chest may become fixed in an outward position. Barrel chest can also occur with cystic fibrosis, severe asthma, and other health issues.

A doctor observing a chest radiograph
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Barrel chest is not usually painful. It a sign of severe underlying lung disease or damage, so the symptoms generally relate to the cause.

Symptoms and signs often associated with barrel chest include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stiffness
  • Reduced oxygen saturation level
  • High levels of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream
  • Limited ability to exercise
  • Posture changes


Barrel chest occurs when the lungs become chronically overinflated (hyperinflated) with air, forcing the rib cage to stay expanded for long periods of time.

Over time, the distention of the rib cage will affect the anterior (forward-facing) chest wall and the posterior (back-facing) wall. As muscle wasting develops—which is often seen in later-stage emphysema—the loss of external support further leads to deformity.

Lung damage and lung disease are the typical causes of barrel chest in adults, but there are also genetic, environmental, and aging-related factors, many of which are not fully reversible. Exceptions to that include children who have cystic fibrosis or severe asthma; in these cases, barrel chest may be somewhat reversible.


Emphysema is one of the two diseases that comprise chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It is typically accompanied by chronic bronchitis, an inflammatory condition characterized by narrowing of the airways and excessive production of mucus.

Emphysema specifically refers to the destruction of the alveoli, the small air sacs in the lungs at the end of air passages through which oxygen is transferred to the blood and carbon dioxide is exhaled.

With fewer and fewer alveoli available to facilitate gas exchange, the lungs have to work harder and take deeper and longer inhalations. As the condition progresses, the lungs will tend to remain in a hyperinflated state, leaving the rib cage expanded.


Osteoarthritis, also known as "wear-and-tear arthritis," typically affects the hands, neck, lower back, knees, and hips.

It can also cause progressive damage to the bones and cartilage of the back and thorax. The condition, referred to as thoracic arthritis, is caused by the degeneration of the cartilage and bone of the middle spine. As the joint bones start to compress and rub against each other, the ensuing inflammation can lead to gradual malformation of the spine.

The rib cage can develop a splayed, barrel-like appearance that can eventually become permanent if the joint bones fuse in this position.

Low calcium levels can further accelerate the problem, causing deformity of the sternum and a condition known as dorsal kyphosis, in which the back becomes rounded and hunched.

Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis often causes a barrel chest in children and young adults affected by the disease. This inheritable genetic disorder triggers the overproduction of mucus, clogging the alveoli and restricting the amount of air entering the lungs.

Over time, the exertion needed to fill the lungs can cause air to become trapped, leaving the chest in a partially inflated position. As a chronic, irreversible condition, cystic fibrosis requires constant surveillance to help clear the lungs and prevent hyperinflation.

Severe Asthma

Severe asthma is a common cause of barrel chest in children. Asthma causes the air passages to constrict and narrow.

When asthma symptoms are severe, the persistently narrowed state of the air passages (in some cases, persisting even after bronchodilators are used) can trap air in the lungs. As air becomes trapped in the lungs, a child's chest can take on a barrel-like appearance, in part, because the cartilage of the rib cage is still so flexible.

Genetic Disorders

There are rare genetic disorders for which barrel chests are characteristic.

  • Dyggve-Melchior-Clausen (DMC) syndrome is a rare, progressive condition characterized by short stature, skeletal deformity, and microcephaly (an abnormally small head). DMC syndrome is so rare that only around 100 cases have been reported.
  • Sialidosis, also known as mucolipidosis type 2, is another rare disorder. It is characterized by the abnormal accumulation of certain toxic substances in the body. Symptoms usually develop during infancy or later childhood and may include short stature, barrel chest, mild cognitive impairment, and cherry-red spots on the eyes.
  • Spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia tarda is a rare, hereditary disorder. Symptoms tend to appear between the ages of 6 and 10 and include short stature, spinal deformity, barrel chest, and premature osteoarthritis.

Any skeletal malformations resulting from these disorders are considered permanent.


Barrel chest is a visible effect of disease, so your healthcare provider will be able to spot it with a physical examination.

You may also have pulmonary function tests (e.g., spirometry) and bloodwork (e.g., a complete blood count and arterial blood gases) to assess how well your lungs are working.

Because barrel chest is not a disease in itself, your healthcare provider will work to identify the underlying condition causing it.


The main goals of treatment are to manage symptoms and prevent further progression. Treatments will vary depending on the cause of barrel chest, but reducing inflammation and improving breathing is essential.

In the case of emphysema and osteoarthritis, the control of symptoms through diet and gentle exercise, medication, and pulmonary rehabilitation may lessen the appearance of a barrel chest, but these therapies cannot eliminate it entirely.

As COPD is a progressive disease, any damage sustained by the lungs, rib cage, or sternum cannot be reversed.

Cystic fibrosis also affects lung development, due in part to recurrent bouts of bacterial infection. As lung capacity decreases, barrel chest worsens and can't be reversed. This is especially true in adults with cystic fibrosis.

Barrel chest in children who have asthma will generally reverse once the symptoms are brought under control.

A Word From Verywell

Barrel chest is a clinical sign of several different medical conditions. It usually appears in the later stages of diseases like emphysema and should be taken as a possible indication of severe lung damage. While the condition itself is not usually reversible, it's important that you work with your healthcare team to find ways to manage your symptoms and make breathing a little bit easier.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is barrel chest?

    Barrel chest is a deformity in which the chest becomes expanded in size. Lung diseases that cause the chest to repeatedly over-expand or to remain in that position can lead to barrel chest, such as emphysema, cystic fibrosis, and asthma. In addition, barrel chest can develop when osteoarthritis affects the bones of the chest and the mid-spine.

  • What does barrel chest look like?

    Barrel chest makes a person's chest appear rounded and enlarged from front to back, from below the neck to above the abdomen. It can look like someone is taking a very deep breath and holding it.

  • How are the ribs affected by barrel chest?

    Barrel chest can cause ribs to become fused in a persistently widened position, as if a person is taking a very large breath.

  • Can people with COPD have barrel chest?

    Yes. Emphysema, a type of COPD, is a common cause of barrel chest. Emphysema destroys lung tissue and traps air in the lungs, causing the lungs and the bones around them to remain in an excessively expanded position.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Deborah Leader, RN
 Deborah Leader RN, PHN, is a registered nurse and medical writer who focuses on COPD.