By Medicover Hospitals / 11 Feb 2021
Wheezing is a high-pitched whistle that occurs while you breathe. It may be blocked due to an allergic reaction, a cold, bronchitis, or allergies. It is most clearly heard when you exhale, but it can be heard when you inhale in severe cases. It is caused by narrowing of the airways or inflammation. Wheezing is the high-pitched hiss or rattle that is heard when the airway is partially blocked.
- What is Wheezing?
- When to visit a Doctor?
- Home Remedies and Prevention
What is wheezing?
Wheezing is the harsh, high-pitched sound your breathing makes when your airway is partially blocked. Some wheezing can only be heard with a stethoscope, but can often be heard with the human ear. Wheezing is most obvious when you exhale, but can also be heard when you inhale. The pitch of wheezing can vary depending on which part of the respiratory system is blocked or constricted. Narrowing of the upper respiratory system can lead to a hoarse wheeze. Lower obstructions can have a more musical tone, similar to how a wind instrument such as a clarinet might sound.
Types of Wheezing:
There are two main types of wheezing.
Expiratory wheezing is easier to hear because your airways narrow more during this phase of breathing. Sometimes expiratory wheezing is loud enough to hear itself. Expiratory wheezing alone often indicates a slight obstruction of the airway.
Inspiratory wheezing occurs when you inhale. In some people with asthma, you can only hear wheezing during the inspiration phase.
- Inspiratory (when inhaling)
- Expiratory (when you exhale)
Wheezing is usually caused by an obstruction (blocking) or narrowing of small bronchial tubes in the chest. It can also be caused by a blockage in the larger airways or vocal cords.
The most common causes of wheezing include problems with:
Chronic breathing disorder that causes the airways to narrow and swell.
Seasonal allergies and food allergies can cause respiratory irritation, congestion, and shortness of breath.
When a person's windpipe becomes blocked with food or another object, it is generally considered a medical emergency.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD):
COPD is a group of inflammatory disorders, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
A panic attack can make a person's throat tighten and make it difficult to breathe.
Bronchitis is an inflammation of the bronchi that is often caused by a viral or bacterial infection.
Cold and flu:
Infections that cause common colds or flu can cause inflammation and breathing problems.
This infection inflames the air sacs in your lungs and they fill with fluid or pus.
Heart disease can cause breathing problems, coughing, and fluid in the lungs.
Smoking increases the risk of developing COPD and emphysema. Smoking and secondhand smoke make asthma difficult to control.
If you don't have a history of lung disease and you always wheeze after eating a certain food or at a certain time of year, your doctor may suspect that you have a food or respiratory allergy.
The doctor will listen to your lungs with a stethoscope to hear where you are wheezing and how much you are wheezing. They can do tests like:
If it seems like allergies may be related to your wheezing, there are a variety of other tests your doctor can use to check for allergies, including skin tests.
- X-rays to get a picture of your lungs.
- Lung function tests to see how well they are working.
- A blood test to check your oxygen levels.
Treatment of wheezing ultimately depends on the underlying cause. If your wheezing is severe, your doctors may give you an oxygen mask to stabilize your breathing and bronchodilators to help open your airways. In this case, they may recommend spending the night in the hospital.
If inflammation is causing your wheezing, your doctor will prescribe anti-inflammatory medications such as steroids to reduce swelling and open your airways for easier breathing. If your wheezing is caused by an infection, antibiotics may be prescribed to treat the condition and associated symptoms.
After that, treatment depends on the cause. Some common causes and treatments include:
For asthma, your doctor will probably prescribe:
If a person experiences any of the following, he or she should go to the emergency room:
For bronchitis, the doctor will prescribe:
- A bronchodilator medication to relieve inflammation and open the airways.
- Inhaled corticosteroids to fight inflammation.
- Leukotriene receptor antagonists to prevent asthma and allergy symptoms
- A bronchodilator to open the airways
- An antibiotic to fight a bacterial infection
When to visit a Doctor?
Often, it is difficult to diagnose the cause of wheezing based solely on signs, and a person should consult their doctor if wheezing is a cause for concern.
If a person experiences any of the following, they should go to the emergency room:
A person who experiences wheezing but is otherwise able to breathe may want to wait a few days to see a doctor. If the wheezing gets worse, they should see a doctor within a day or so.
Other reasons may be:
- struggles with your breath
- wheezing that comes on suddenly
- other symptoms, such as chest pain
- signs of anaphylaxis
- Difficulty breathing
- Tightness in the chest
- Rapid breathing
- Unexplained swelling of your feet or legs
- Loss of voice
- Swelling of the lips or tongue
- A bluish tinge around the skin, mouth, or nails
Home Remedies and Prevention:
Keep the air moist. Use a humidifier, take a hot, steaming shower, or sit in the bathroom with the door closed while you open a hot shower.
- Drink something hot. Relaxes the airways and loosens sticky mucus.
- Don't smoke
- Inhaling warm, moisture-rich air can be very effective in clearing the sinuses and opening the airways
- Warm and hot drinks can help relax the airways and relieve congestion
- Breathing exercises can help with COPD, bronchitis, allergies, and other common causes of wheezing
- A household air filter can reduce the presence of irritants that can cause wheezing and shortness of breath
- Nasal sprays can be especially helpful in relieving chest tightness, congestion, and inflammation that can cause wheezing
Frequently Asked Questions:
Wheezing is a high-pitched whistle that occurs while you breathe. It is most clearly heard when you exhale, but it can be heard when you inhale in severe cases. It is caused by narrowing or inflammation of the airways.
Pneumonia is a lung infection that causes the lungs to fill with fluid. This fluid may block the airways and cause wheezing. People may also notice that their breathing is shallow or quick.
If you are using a corticosteroid inhaler, gargle and rinse your mouth with water after use. Do not swallow the water. Swallowing the water will increase the chance that the medicine will enter your bloodstream.
These inhalers can leave small amounts of medicine on the vocal cords or cause dryness, irritation, or swelling of the vocal cords. This can change the sound of the voice and cause hoarseness, cracking voice, hoarse voice, or total loss of voice.
Overdose symptoms may include dry mouth, tremors, chest pain, fast or irregular heartbeat, nausea, general ill feeling, seizures (convulsions), feeling dizzy or fainting.
Oxford Academy - https://academic.oup.com/cid/article/44/7/904/461029?login=true
Pediatrics - https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/109/Supplement_E1/362.short
ATS Journals - https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/full/10.1164/ajrccm.162.4.9912111