What is wheezing?

Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling sound made while breathing. It’s often associated with difficulty breathing. Wheezing may occur during breathing out (expiration) or breathing in (inspiration). 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.

How common is wheezing?

Wheezing is extremely common. It can occur in patients in any gender at any age. It can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Which signs and symptoms can wheezing usually be associated with?

Related signs and symptoms include:

  • 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


What causes wheezing?

Causes of wheezing can include:

  • Asthma. Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition that causes spasms and swelling in the bronchial tubes. In a person with asthma, the inside walls of the airways, known as bronchial tubes, become swollen or inflamed. This swelling or inflammation makes the airways extremely sensitive to irritations and increases their susceptibility to an allergic reaction. In an allergic reaction, the airways swell, and the muscles around the airway tighten, making it difficult for air to move in and out of the lungs.
  • Anaphylaxis – this is a severe allergic reaction that can lead to sudden onset of wheezing and is a medical emergency that is potentially life threatening.
  • Bronchitis – often used as a generic term for inflammation of the airways. Some physicians refer to recurrent episodes of wheezing and coughing as bronchitis.
  • Bronchiolitis – In the winter time this cause of wheezing is commonly due to the RSV virus, but other viruses can also cause wheezing such as adenovirus, influenza, or parainfluenza. The virus is a risk factor for developing recurrent wheezing and asthma symptoms.
  • Cystic Fibrosis – CP patients often experience CF poor growth in childhood, weight problems, cough, and shortness of breath in addition to wheezing. The wheezing is usually part of the underlying respiratory problems (e.g. Bronchiectasis and pneumonia) as opposed to an inflammatory asthma-like condition.
  • CHF or congestive heart failure – Here the wheezing is due to fluid build up in the lungs leading to decrease airflow as opposed to inflammation. Unlike wheezing in asthma patients, CHF patients will often have a large heart on chest x-ray and a heart ultrasound will demonstrate poor performance or a decreased ejection fraction. In this condition, the heart no longer adequately pumps blood to the body.
  • COPD – The wheezing sound is due to narrowed airways like in asthma, but the pathophysiology of asthma is different.
  • Foreign Body- think peanut or Mardi gras bead. Different from asthma as the wheezing is often localized to one place.
  • GERD – Bronchospasm can result from aspirating acid into the lungs or the airways can narrow as a result of acid going into the esophagus.
  • Lung cancer- similar to a foreign body, it is more likely to cause localized wheezing.
  • Vocal chord dysfunction – Patient experiences wheezing, but does not have any benefit from asthma treatment.
  • Pulmonary Embolism- This is a blood clot in the lungs. Wheezing may be one of the symptoms, patients more commonly have acute shortness of breath and chest pain.

The conditions mentioned above are some common causes of wheezing. Consult with your doctor for an accurate diagnosis.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for wheezing?

There are many risk factors for wheezing, such as:

  • Young age. 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.
  • Smoking habit
  • History of emphysema and heart failure

Please consult with your doctor for further information.

When to see your doctor

When should I see my doctor?

You should contact your doctor if you or your loved one has any of the following:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Briefly bluish skin color
  • Wheezing following being stung by a bee, taking medication or eating an allergy-causing food
  • Wheezing accompanied by severe difficulty breathing or bluish skin color
  • Wheezing following choking on a small object or food

On noticing one of these symptoms or having any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor to get the best solutions for your situation.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage wheezing?

These following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with wheezing:

  • Steam inhalation. Inhaling warm, moisture-rich air can be very effective for clearing the sinuses and opening up the airways.
  • Hot drinks. Warm and hot drinks can help to loosen up the airways and relieve congestion. Honey is a natural anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial, so adding a teaspoon of honey to a hot drink may further improve a person’s symptoms.
  • Breathing exercises. Breathing exercises may help with COPD, bronchitis, allergies, and other common causes of wheezing.
  • During the dry winter months, wheezing often gets worse. A humidifier in the bedroom can help loosen congestion and reduce the severity of wheezing.
  • Air filters. Many conditions that cause wheezing can get worse when the air is polluted or in response to allergens. A home air filter can reduce the presence of irritants that may trigger wheezing and breathing trouble.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor for the best solutions.


Review Date: January 17, 2019 | Last Modified: January 17, 2019

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