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).
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.
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 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.
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:
Your doctor will begin an exam by asking about how long and how often you have been wheezing. He or she will ask if the wheezing occurs with physical exertion, as when exercising, or if you wheeze all of the time. Other questions the doctor will need to know include:
Your doctor will also perform a physical exam to listen to your breathing and lung sounds. He or she may also prescribe a lung X-ray, lung function tests, and blood tests to check your oxygen levels. If the patient is a child, the doctor may also check to make sure he or she did not swallow or inhale a small object such as a toy or coin that could cause the wheezing.
Treatment for wheezing depends on the underlying cause. Immediate treatment may include the use of supplemental oxygen to help the patient with breathing. Some patients may need to be hospitalized until their breathing improves.
If your wheezing is found to be caused by asthma, you will likely be prescribed a type of inhaler to reduce inflammation and open your airways (a bronchodilator, as discussed below). Inhaled corticosteroids and pills such as montelukast (Singulair®) are anti-inflammatory medicines used to treat asthma.
If your wheezing is determined to be caused by bronchitis, you may be prescribed a bronchodilator such as albuterol (Proair® HFA, Proventil® HFA, Ventolin® HFA) or an antibiotic to deal with a bacterial infection. This should eliminate your wheezing as you heal.
Other causes of wheezing may require different treatment. Whatever the cause of your wheezing, using a vaporizer or sitting in an area with moist, heated air such as a shower, can help relieve your symptoms. Your doctor can come up with the best plan for your condition.
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 06/30/2017