Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling sound that is made while you breathe. It’s heard most clearly when you exhale, but in severe cases, it can be heard when you inhale as well. It’s caused by narrowed airways or inflammation. Wheezing may be a symptom of a serious breathing problem that requires diagnosis and treatment. Here is what you need to know.
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). They both cause narrowing and spasms 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:
- Anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction)
- Childhood asthma
- COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
- Epiglottitis (swelling of the "lid" of your windpipe)
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Heart failure
- Lung cancer
- Sleep apnea, obstructive
What should I do if I am wheezing?
Wheeze is a very common symptom that can occur with a wide range of lung and airways disorders at any age. The severity of the diseases causing wheeze can vary. Usually, other lung or respiratory related symptoms tend to occur at the same time as wheeze. Moreover, a cough is common but other more serious symptoms may be present such as breathing difficulty.
Risk factors for wheezing
Wheezing can happen to anyone. However, there are certain risk factors that can increase your chances of developing a wheeze. Hereditary illnesses, such as asthma, can run in families.
Wheezing can also occur in:
- people with allergies
- people with lung cancer
- toddlers in day care or with older siblings, due to the increased exposure to infections
- past and current smokers
What tests may be done?
Your doctor is likely to ask questions about the nature of the wheezing and ask if you have any other symptoms. He or she will also examine you. Following a doctor's assessment, the likely cause may be clear and your doctor will advise on what to do next. Furthermore, tests may or may not be appropriate. Many people have repeated episodes of wheezing when the cause is usually clear. However, if the cause is not clear, or you are seriously sick, your doctor may refer you for one or more tests. The tests done can vary depending on the suspected cause. Tests that are commonly done include a chest X-ray and lung function tests.
Treatment for wheezing
Treatment for wheezing has two goals:
- to control the inflammation in your airways
- to open up your breathing tubes with quick-acting medications
Prescription anti-inflammatory medications can decrease inflammation and excess mucus in your airways. They usually come in the form of inhalers, but they’re also available as long-acting tablets. Syrups are used for young children. Bronchodilators are a quick-acting medication, and they’re often used to treat wheezing and help relieve a cough. They work by relaxing the smooth muscles that encircle your breathing tubes. Your doctor might recommend both anti-inflammatory and quick-acting medications if the wheezing is related to a long-term illness, such as asthma or COPD.
The outlook for people who wheeze depends on the exact cause of their symptoms. In many cases, chronic asthma and COPD often require long-term treatment. However, wheezing that’s associated with short-term illnesses usually disappears when you get well. Make sure to tell your doctor if your wheezing reoccurs or worsens.