Wheezing

What Is Wheezing?

Wheezing is a high-pitched, coarse whistling sound when you breathe.

Many people with respiratory allergies know that wheezing often comes with hay fever season. It may also happen because of respiratory infections like acute bronchitis. But chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma are the most common causes.

A number of treatments can ease wheezing. Your doctor should keep close watch if you have asthma, severe allergies, long-term bronchitis, emphysema, or COPD. You also may need to see a specialist such as an allergist or pulmonologist.

What Causes Wheezing?

The whistling sound happens when air moves through narrowed airways, much like the way a whistle or flute makes music.

Many health problems can cause wheezing, including:

  • Asthma. This condition, in which your airways narrow, swell, and make extra mucus, can make it hard to breathe.
  • Allergic reactions to pollen, chemicals, pet dander, dust, foods, or insect stings
  • Bronchitis
  • COPD
  • Cystic fibrosis, which damages your lungs and makes the mucus extra sticky and thick
  • Obstruction of an airway because you’ve inhaled an object such as a coin
  • Lung cancer
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Pneumonia. This infection inflames the air sacs in your lungs, and they fill with fluid or pus.
  • Bronchiolitis. This lung infection inflames airways and causes congestion, usually in children.
  • Emphysema, a lung condition that causes shortness of breath
  • Smoking or breathing in smoke
  • Respiratory syncytial virus. This can lead to bronchiolitis.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Vocal cord problems
  • Sleep apnea

Wheezing Risk Factors

Anyone can have wheezing. It often happens in infants, possibly because of their smaller airways. It’s also common in children who have asthma or bronchiolitis.

Adults who smoke or who have emphysema or heart failure are more likely to have wheezing.

When to See a Doctor

Mild wheezing, the type that happens when you have a cold, should go away when the illness does. But you should see a doctor if you have:

Go to the ER if your wheezing:

  • Starts soon after you’re stung by a bee or just after you take medication or eat food that can cause an allergy
  • Comes with severe breathing trouble or bluish skin
  • Happens after you choke on a bit of food

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Diagnosing the Cause of Wheezing

Your doctor will ask you questions like:

  • How long have you been wheezing?
  • Does it happen when you exercise?
  • Do you wheeze all the time?
  • Do you wheeze more during the day, or at night?
  • Does rest help control it?
  • Do you wheeze when you breathe in, or out, or both in and out?
  • Do you smoke?
  • Do certain foods seem to cause your wheezing?

They’ll listen to your breathing and the sounds your lungs make. They might do tests like:

  • X-rays to get a picture of your lungs
  • Lung function tests to see how well they’re working
  • Blood test to check your oxygen levels. (Those that are too low could signal a lung problem.)

If your child is wheezing, their doctor might check to see if they’ve swallowed or inhaled something small.

How Is Wheezing Treated?

The first thing your doctor may do is give you oxygen. You might need to stay in the hospital until you get better.

After that, treatment depends on the cause. Some common causes and treatments include:

Asthma. Your doctor will probably prescribe:

Bronchitis. Your doctor will prescribe:

Self-Care and Remedies to Lessen Wheezing

There are a few things you can do to prevent wheezing:

  • Keep the air moist. Use a humidifier, take a warm, steamy shower, or sit in the bathroom with the door closed while running a hot shower.
  • Drink something warm. It relaxes your airways and loosens sticky mucus.
  • Don’t smoke. And stay away from people who do.
  • Follow your doctor’s orders. Take your medicines according to the instructions.
  • Do breathing exercises. They can help your lungs work better. Try these:
    • Pursed-lip breathing. Breathe in through your nose. Breathe out for twice as long, with your lips pursed like you’re going to whistle.
    • Belly breathing. Breathe in through your nose. Put your hands on your belly and pay attention to how it expands. Breathe out through your mouth for at least 2 to 3 times as long as you breathed in.
  • Clean the air. Use an air cleaner with a HEPA filter. This will cut down on allergens that often lead to asthma attacks.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 16, 2020

Sources

SOURCES: 

American Lung Association: "Diseases A-Z," “Breathing Exercises.”

MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia: "Wheezing."

American Family Physician: "Diagnosis and Treatment of Acute Bronchitis."

UpToDate: "Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: Definition, clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and staging," “Evaluation of wheezing illnesses other than asthma in adults.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Wheezing.”

Mayo Clinic: “Asthma,” “Bronchiolitis,” “Cystic fibrosis,” “Emphysema,” “Pneumonia,” “Wheezing.”

Chest Foundation: “Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).”

American Academy of Pediatrics: “RSV: When It's More Than Just a Cold.”

American Thoracic Society: “Pulse Oximetry.”

MedlinePlus: “Montelukast.”

American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: “Air Filters.”

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