What causes wheezing?

Wheezing is usually 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 causes 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 problems with your:

Lungs:

  • Asthma is a chronic condition that causes spasms and swelling in the bronchial tubes. Wheezing in asthma can be triggered by exposure to airborne allergens such as pollen, mold, animals, or house dust. Viral illnesses can also make asthma symptoms worse.
  • Bronchitis is inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes.
  • Bronchiolitis is most common in young children.
  • COPD is chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, a long-term inflammation and damage of the bronchial tube lining, most commonly from smoking cigarettes.
  • Cystic fibrosis (CF). In people who have CF, thick mucus clogs the airways and makes breathing difficult.
  • Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs caused by a virus or bacteria.
  • Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a seasonal lung infection that can lead to bronchiolitis or pneumonia.
  • Aspirating (breathing) a foreign object into the lungs.

Vocal cords:

  • Vocal cord dysfunction. VCD causes your vocal cords to close instead of opening up when you breathe in and out, making it harder to get air into or out of your lungs.

The digestive tract:

  • GERD. Chronic acid reflux can relax the lower esophageal valve, causing wheezing.

Allergies:

  • Allergies triggered by allergens such as dust mites, pollens, pets, mold spores and foods.
  • Anaphylaxis, an acute (severe) allergic reaction caused by foods or insect stings.

Heart conditions:

  • Heart failure. Cardiac asthma is from fluid in the lungs caused by left heart failure.

Lifestyle choices:

  • Smoking increases your risk of developing COPD and emphysema. Smoking and second hand smoke makes asthma harder to control.

Wheezing in these cases is best managed by treating the underlying conditions.

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

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