What is wheezing?

Wheezing is a high-pitched, coarse whistling sound that can occur when a person is breathing. Some wheezes are only heard with a doctor's stethoscope, but a wheeze can often be heard with the naked ear.

Wheezing most often is caused by an obstruction (blockage) or narrowing of the small bronchial tubes in the chest. It can also be caused by an obstruction in the larger airways or vocal cords.

The tone of the wheeze can vary depending on which part of the respiratory system is blocked or narrowed. Narrowing in the upper respiratory system may make for a hoarser wheeze. Lower obstructions may have a more "musical" tone.

Wheezing is most obvious when a person is breathing out (exhaling), but can also be heard when breathing in (inhaling).

Who develops wheezing?

Anyone--from infants to elderly adults--can develop wheezing. Children with asthma often develop wheezing. Wheezing is also quite common in infants; it is estimated that up to 25 to 30 percent of infants develop wheezing in their first year of life.

Wheezing may be more common in babies because of their smaller airways. Also, children under two are susceptible to a common, but easily treatable condition called bronchiolitis. This is caused by a viral respiratory infection and can cause wheezing.

In adults, smokers and individuals with emphysema and heart failure are more likely to develop wheezing.

What are the causes of wheezing?

The causes of wheezing vary widely, and range from chronic (long-term), usually manageable conditions such as asthma, to very serious conditions that include heart failure. The most common causes of wheezing include:

  • Asthma (a chronic respiratory condition that causes spasms and swelling in the bronchial tubes)
  • Bronchitis (inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes)
  • Bronchiolitis (most common in young children)
  • Smoking
  • Emphysema (a condition in which the air sacs of the lungs are damaged)
  • Heart failure
  • Pneumonia (an inflammation of the lungs caused by a virus or bacteria)
  • Aspirating (breathing) a foreign object into the lungs
  • A severe acute (sudden) allergic reaction called anaphylaxis caused by foods or a stinging insect

Asthma and bronchitis are among the most common causes of wheezing in adults. Wheezing in these cases is usually treated by treating the underlying conditions.

If you develop wheezing, you should call your healthcare provider as soon as possible. If you are experiencing wheezing along with a severe shortness of breath or a blue tinge to your skin, seek health care right away.

What symptoms may occur with wheezing?

Symptoms vary depending on the cause of your wheezing. An audible high-pitched whistling sound is the most apparent symptom of wheezing. Other symptoms that may accompany wheezing are:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness
  • Fever
  • Stuffy nose
  • Loss of voice
  • Swelling of the lips or tongue
  • A bluish tinge around your mouth or nails

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy