Wheezing

What Is Wheezing?

Wheezing is a high-pitched, coarse whistling sound you make when you breathe. Many people with respiratory allergies know that bouts of wheezing often come when hay fever season starts. Wheezing may also come from respiratory infections like acute bronchitis. And people who have heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, including emphysema, may have it, too. But wheezing is a primary symptom of the chronic respiratory disease asthma.

A variety of treatments can ease wheezing. You should be regularly monitored by a doctor if you have asthma, severe allergies, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). You also may need to be checked out by a specialist such as an allergist or pulmonologist.

What Causes Wheezing?

The whistling sound happens when air moves through airways that are narrowed, much like the way a whistle or flute makes music. In asthma, this airway narrowing is due to inflammation, mucus, and muscle spasms in the wall of the airways.

Wheezing usually results from one of the following health problems:

  • 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
  • Acute or chronic bronchitis and COPD, which can produce excess mucus in the respiratory tract and cause the lungs' passageways to become blocked
  • Cystic fibrosis, an inherited disease that damages your lungs and makes the mucus extra sticky and thick
  • Obstruction of an airway by a foreign body that has been inhaled (such as a coin)
  • Tumor in the lungs
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Pneumonia: An infection that inflames the air sacs in your lungs, and they fill with fluid or pus
  • Bronchiolitis: This lung infection that inflames the airways and causes congestion usually affects children.
  • Emphysema, a lung condition that causes shortness of breath
  • Smoking, or breathing in smoke, can make you wheeze.
  • Respiratory syncytial virus: This virus can lead to bronchiolitis, a lung infection that inflames the airways and causes congestion or pneumonia.

 

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When to See a Doctor

Mild wheezing, like when you have a cold, should go away when the illness does. But you could see a doctor for wheezing if you have:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Fast breathing
  • Skin that briefly turns blue

Go to the ER if your wheezing:

  • Starts shortly 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 small bit of food

 

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?

The doctor will listen to your breathing and the sounds your lungs make. She might do tests like:

  • X-ray to get a picture of your lungs
  • Lung function tests to see how well they work
  • Blood test to check your oxygen levels (too low could signal a lung problem)

If your child is wheezing, the doctor might check to make sure he hasn’t swallowed or inhaled a small object.

How Is Wheezing Treated?

The first thing the doctor may do is give you oxygen. You may 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 likely prescribe:

  • Bronchodilator: This medication eases inflammation and opens your airways.
  • Inhaled corticosteroids to ease inflammation
  • Leukotriene receptor antagonists that help prevent asthma and allergy symptoms

Bronchitis: The doctor will prescribe:

  • Bronchodilator to open your airways
  • Antibiotic to cure a bacterial infection

 

Self-Care and Remedies to Lessen Wheezing

There are a few easy things you can do to stop 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 warm shower.
  • Try warm drinks: Warm liquids relax your airways and loosen up sticky mucus.
  • Don’t smoke: And stay away from people who do.
  • Follow doctor’s orders: Take the medicines you’re prescribed according to the doctor’s instructions.
  • Try breathing exercises: They can help your lungs work better, which helps with asthma symptoms like wheezing. Try these:
    • Pursed lip breathing: Breathe in through your nose, and breathe out twice as long, with your lips pursed.
    • Belly breathing: Breathe in through your nose. Pay attention to how your belly fills with air (put your hands on it). 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 help cut down on allergens that often lead to asthma attacks.

 

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on May 21, 2019

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."

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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