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What to Know About Wheezing

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 29, 2021

Wheezing is a high-pitched lung sound that’s caused by your breath passing through narrowed airways. Wheezing can be caused by any condition that limits your airflow. 

Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — or COPD — are the most common causes. Wheezing can be a sign of a serious illness, so you should see your doctor if you experience it.

Causes of Wheezing

Wheezing can be a symptom of allergies or of problems in areas of your body including the lungs, heart, vocal cords, and digestive tract. 

Allergies.Triggers like dust mites, pets, pollen, and food can cause wheezing if you're allergic to them. Anaphylaxis is a severe type of allergic reaction that's usually caused by an allergy to insect venom or food. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening emergency that needs immediate treatment.

Lung problems.Asthma is a common cause of wheezing. It's a chronic (long-term) condition that causes swelling and spasms in your bronchial tubes — the airway passages in your lungs.

Asthma can be triggered by exposure to things like mold pollen, animal fur, or dust that irritate your airways. If you have asthma, you may have a prolonged expiratory phase and wheezing. The expiratory phase is how long it takes you to breathe out.

Other lung conditions that can cause wheezing include:

  • Bronchitis — an inflammation of the lining in your bronchial tubes
  • Bronchiolitis — an inflammation in the small airways of the lungs. It's most common in young children
  • COPD — a chronic condition that causes inflammation and damage to the lining of the bronchial tubes and is often caused by smoking
  • Cystic fibrosis (or CF) — an inherited disease that causes your mucus to be thick and clog your airways
  • Pneumonia — an infection caused by a virus or bacteria that causes inflammation of your lungs
  • Respiratory syncytial virus (or RSV) — a virus that infects your lungs and breathing passages
  • Pulmonary aspiration — a condition that happens when you get food, fluid, or an object stuck into your airways

Heart.Congestive heart failure can lead to fluid in your lungs. This is called cardiac asthma and can cause wheezing.

Vocal cords.Vocal cord dysfunction is a problem with the movement of your vocal cords that can cause wheezing.

Digestive tract.Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can cause lung diseases or make them worse. GERD is a condition where your stomach acid backs up into your esophagus. This acid can enter your lungs, inflame them, and cause wheezing.

Treatment for Wheezing

The treatment for your wheezing will depend on what's causing it. If your wheezing is interfering with your breathing or if it’s severe, you may have to be hospitalized until it improves.

Asthma. Treatment for asthma focuses on prevention and long-term control. Some treatment options may include:

Infection. If your wheezing is caused by infection symptoms like bronchitis or pneumonia, your doctor may prescribe a quick-relief inhaler to help with the wheezing. If a bacterium is causing the infection, you may need an antibiotic to treat it. The wheezing should go away as you get better. 

Other causes. Treatment for other causes of wheezing depends on many different factors. Your doctor will come up with a plan to treat the underlying cause of your wheezing and help to relieve your symptoms.

Home Remedies for Wheezing

Here are some things you can do at home to help with your wheezing:

Avoid smoke. If you smoke, you should quit. You should also avoid any sources of second-hand smoke. Smoke can irritate your lungs and inflame your airways.

Practice deep breathing exercises.Breathing exercises can help you relax your airways. You can try specific types of breathing exercises like pranayama or you can just practice slow, deep breathing. This works best in a moist, humid environment.

Drink hot tea. The steam and warmth of the tea will help relax your airways. Green tea may have antibacterial properties that can help with infections.

Use a humidifier.Moist air may help soothe your airways.

Purify your air. Using an air purifier with a HEPA filter can help get rid of allergens in your home.

When to Seek Help

Mild wheezing that happens along with a respiratory infection like a cold doesn't always need to be treated. But, call your doctor if you have:

  • Wheezing that keeps returning
  • Wheezing that is unexplained
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid breathing
  • A bluish tinge to your skin that goes away quickly

Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if:

  • Your skin, mouth, or nails turn blue
  • You suddenly start wheezing after an insect bite
  • You suddenly start wheezing after eating a new food or taking a new medication
  • You start wheezing after choking on food or a small object
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Annals of Thoracic Medicine: "Pulmonary manifestations of gastroesophageal reflux disease."

Cleveland Clinic: "Wheezing."

Mayo Clinic: "Allergies," "Asthma," "Wheezing."

Medscape: "Which respiratory findings are characteristic of asthma?"

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