Definition of wheezing
Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling sound made while breathing. Most commonly wheezing occurs during breathing out (expiration), but it can sometimes be related to breathing in (inspiration).
Causes of wheezing
Wheezing results from a narrowing of the airways and typically indicates some difficulty breathing. The narrowing of the airways can be caused by inflammation from asthma, an infection, an allergic reaction, or by a physical obstruction, such as a tumor or a foreign object that’s been inhaled.
The most common cause of recurrent wheezing is asthma. Possible causes of wheezing include:
- Anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction, such as to an insect bite or medication)
- Bronchiectasis, a chronic lung condition in which abnormal widening of bronchial tubes inhibits mucus clearing
- Bronchiolitis (especially in young children)
- Childhood asthma
- COPD — Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Epiglottitis (swelling of the “lid” of your windpipe)
- Foreign object inhaled
- GERD — Gastroesophageal reflux disease
- Heart failure
- Lung cancer
- Medications (particularly aspirin)
- Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) (especially in young children)
- Respiratory tract infection (especially in children younger than 2)
- Sleep apnea, obstructive (a condition in which breathing stops and starts during sleep)
- Vocal cord dysfunction (a condition that affects vocal cord movement)
When to see a doctor
Talk to your doctor if wheezing is mild and is happening for the first time, it’s a recurrent, unexplained problem, or it’s accompanied by:
- Difficulty breathing
- Rapid breathing
- Briefly bluish skin color
Seek emergency care if wheezing:
- Begins suddenly after being stung by a bee, taking medication or eating an allergy-causing food
- Is accompanied by severe difficulty breathing or bluish skin color
- Occurs after choking on a small object or food
In some cases, wheezing can be relieved by certain medications or use of an inhaler. In others, you might need treatment such as having a breathing tube put down your throat.
To ease wheezing, try these tips:
- Moisturize the air. Use a humidifier, take a steamy shower or sit in the bathroom with the door closed while running a hot shower. Moist air might help relieve mild wheezing in some instances.
- Drink fluids. Warm liquids can relax the airway and loosen up sticky mucus in your throat.
- Avoid tobacco smoke. Active or passive smoking can worsen a cough.
- Take all prescribed medications. Follow the doctor’s instructions.