wheezing

Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling sound made while breathing. It's often associated with difficulty breathing. Wheezing may occur during breathing out (expiration) or breathing in (inspiration).

Causes

Inflammation and narrowing of the airway in any location, from your throat out into your lungs, can result in wheezing.

The most common causes of recurrent wheezing are asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which both cause narrowing and spasms (bronchospasms) in the small airways of your lungs.

However, any inflammation in your throat or larger airways can cause wheezing. Common causes include infection, an allergic reaction or a physical obstruction, such as a tumor or a foreign object that's been inhaled.

All of the following conditions can lead to wheezing:

  1. Allergies
  2. Anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction, such as to an insect bite or medication)
  3. Asthma
  4. Bronchiectasis (a chronic lung condition in which abnormal widening of bronchial tubes inhibits mucus clearing)
  5. Bronchiolitis (especially in young children)
  6. Bronchitis
  7. Childhood asthma
  8. COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  9. Emphysema
  10. Epiglottitis (swelling of the "lid" of your windpipe)
  11. Foreign object inhaled: First aid
  12. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  13. Heart failure
  14. Lung cancer
  15. Medications (particularly aspirin)
  16. Sleep apnea, obstructive (a condition in which breathing stops and starts during sleep)
  17. Pneumonia
  18. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) — especially in young children
  19. Respiratory tract infection (especially in children younger than 2)
  20. Smoking
  21. Vocal cord dysfunction (a condition that affects vocal cord movement)

     

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if wheezing:

  • Occurs for the first time
  • Occurs with significant shortness of breath, bluish skin, confusion, or mental status changes
  • Keeps occurring without explanation
  • Is caused by an allergic reaction to a bite or medicine

If wheezing is severe or occurs with severe shortness of breath, you should go directly to the nearest emergency department.

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

The provider will perform a physical exam and ask about your medical history and symptoms. Questions about your wheezing may include when it started, how long it has lasted, when it is worse, and what might have caused it.

The physical exam may include listening to the lung sounds (auscultation). If your child has the symptoms, the provider will make sure your child didn't swallow a foreign object.

Tests that may be done include:

  • Blood work, possibly including arterial blood gases
  • Chest x-ray
  • Lung function tests

A hospital stay may be needed if:

  • Breathing is particularly difficult
  • Medicines need to be given through a vein (IV)
  • Supplemental oxygen is required
  • The person needs to be closely watched by medical personnel

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