June 22, 2024

Vitavo Yage

Best Health Creates a Happy Life

Wheezing: Causes and Treatments

8 min read

Certain health symptoms, like randomly sneezing here and there, might be easy to brush off. The high-pitched sound made during breathing, also known as wheezing, is not one of those things.

Wheezing can be a sign of a breathing problem. And in some situations, wheezing could be serious. Here’s what you should know about wheezing, including causes, treatments, and when to see a healthcare provider.

Wheezing is a high-pitched sound that’s made during breathing. The sound is most apparent when exhaling, but it may also be heard when inhaling. Wheezing usually sounds “almost like a whistle,” Shweta Sood, MD, a pulmonologist at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, told Health.

The sound happens when air moves through narrowed passageways. That narrowing and inflammation can occur in any part of the airway, from your lungs up to your throat, but it most often affects the bronchial tubes, small breathing tubes, deep in the lungs.

“It’s often associated with a blockage or limitation of airflow,” Reynold Panettieri, MD, vice chancellor for translational medicine and science director at the Rutgers Institute for Translational Medicine, told Health.

While it’s possible to have wheezing without any other symptoms, most people tend to have chest tightness and cough along with their wheezing, said Dr. Panettieri.

There’s a laundry list of potential wheezing causes linked to issues in your lungs, vocal cords, or even heart. Treating the underlying condition will often take care of the wheezing.

Asthma

According to Dr. Sood, asthma is a chronic condition that causes spasms and swelling in your bronchial tubes, letting air in and out of your lungs. Asthma is one of the most common causes of recurrent wheezing.

“With asthma, the airways can spasm and suddenly narrow, making it hard for air to move out,” explained Dr. Sood. “In certain asthmatics, their airways may always be a little inflamed.”

If you’re wheezing due to asthma, “an inhaler is often the first line of defense,” added Dr. Sood. Specifically, using a bronchodilator inhaler can reduce inflammation and open your airways.

Other asthma treatments and prevention include:

  • Seeing a healthcare provider for proper diagnosis and treatment
  • Taking medication, including biologics (via injection or infusion) or corticosteroids
  • Learning, recognizing, and managing asthma triggers

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a condition that causes long-term inflammation and damage to the bronchial tube lining. COPD is one of the most common causes of recurrent wheezing.

Short-acting bronchodilator inhalers are one of the first treatments for most people with COPD. A healthcare provider may prescribe medicine or breathing therapy if an inhaler does not provide relief.

Bronchitis

Bronchitis causes inflammation of the lining of your bronchial tubes. Acute bronchitis is prevalent and often develops from a cold or other respiratory infections. Also referred to as a chest cold, acute bronchitis usually improves on its own within a few days. In contrast, chronic bronchitis is part of COPD.

A healthcare provider might prescribe a bronchodilator inhaler with albuterol if you’re diagnosed with bronchitis, said Dr. Sood. And if the cause of your bronchitis is bacteria, a healthcare provider may prescribe an antibiotic to help clear things up.

Bronchiolitis

Bronchiolitis is inflammation of the small airways, called bronchioles, in your lungs. Bronchiolitis is a common lung infection in young children and infants. 

Healthcare providers usually recommend treating the symptoms at home unless they become serious. At-home treatment includes staying hydrated and moistening the air with a humidifier.

Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis affects many organs in the body, including the lungs. Cystic fibrosis is an inherited disorder caused by a genetic mutation that makes mucus thick and sticky. That mucus can clog the airways and make breathing hard. Wheezing is common in children with the condition.

Treatments include medication to help thin and clear mucus from the airways and antibiotics to treat infections.

Breathing a Foreign Object Into Your Lungs

Aspiration is the act of swallowing or drinking something into your lungs instead of your esophagus and stomach (or when something goes down the wrong pipe).

According to Dr. Panettieri, you can develop wheezing when the air you breathe tries to move around the object. That foreign object could also cause inflammation or an infection of the lungs or large airways, known as aspiration pneumonia. One of the symptoms of aspiration pneumonia is wheezing.

If you suspect you have aspiration pneumonia, see a healthcare provider for evaluation. They will listen to your chest and possibly order tests or medications.

Pneumonia

Other types of pneumonia are classified by the germs that cause illness and where you get the infection. Bacteria or viruses most commonly cause pneumonia. No matter the type, all involve inflammation of the air sacs in one or both lungs.

A healthcare provider will prescribe treatments for pneumonia depending on the type and severity of your illness. Typically, mild cases of pneumonia subside with rest, medicine, and drinking fluids.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV)

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus that causes infections of the lungs and respiratory tract. People with RSV typically show symptoms four to six days after getting infected. And one of those symptoms is usually wheezing.

Antibiotics won’t treat viral illnesses, so a healthcare provider may recommend using an inhaler (like a short-term inhaled bronchodilator) to help with your wheezing until the illness clears up, said Dr. Sood.

Vocal Cord Dysfunction

Vocal cord dysfunction causes your vocal cords to close instead of open when you breathe. The condition makes getting air into or out of your lungs more difficult. The high-pitched wheezing sound from vocal cord dysfunction happens when inhaling, known as stridor.

Treatment for vocal cord dysfunction includes avoiding triggers like exercising too hard, being in cold weather, or singing. It may also help to learn deep breathing techniques to help during an attack or attend speech therapy.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) causes acid from your stomach to come back into your esophagus. Chronic acid reflux can relax the lower esophageal valve, causing wheezing.

GERD can cause serious health problems if left untreated, so it’s essential to consult a healthcare provider. In the meantime, you can manage your symptoms at home by trying the following:

  • Avoiding alcohol and spicy, fatty, or acidic foods that trigger heartburn
  • Eating smaller meals
  • Not eating close to bedtime
  • Losing weight if needed
  • Wearing loose-fitting clothes

Allergies

Allergies are your body’s reaction to an allergen, like pollen, pet dander, or dust. When you come into contact with the allergen, your immune system’s reaction can inflame your airways.

If a healthcare provider suspects allergies are behind your wheezing, they’ll likely recommend that you do your best to avoid exposure to your allergen, said Dr. Panettieri. A healthcare provider may consider putting you on allergy medication or tweaking your existing medication.

Anaphylaxis

Some allergies can trigger a severe reaction known as anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis can cause someone to go into shock. One of the complications can include the swelling of bronchial tissues, which help carry air. That swelling can cause wheezing. It could also cause you to pass out or stop breathing.

If you think you may have anaphylaxis, get medical help immediately.

Heart Failure

Wheezing while coughing up white or blood-tinged mucus is a sign of heart failure, which can be fatal. Fluid can build up in the lungs when you have heart failure, leading to wheezing, also known as pulmonary edema. Heart failure can also cause fluid to build up in and around the airways.

See a healthcare provider for proper diagnosis and treatment options.

Smoking

Smoking increases your risk of developing respiratory infections and COPD. Smoking also makes it harder to control asthma. All of those conditions can lead to wheezing.

The best way to treat wheezing is to quit smoking, dramatically lowering your risk of a slew of chronic diseases, some of which also contribute to breathing problems.

If your wheezing has lasted for a few weeks, “it’s usually a tip-off that you have an underlying undiagnosed condition that needs to be addressed,” explained Dr. Sood. And if you already have a diagnosis, like asthma, but you’re still wheezing, that’s a sign your treatment isn’t working as well as it should be.

You’ll want to get help quickly if you notice your wheezing occurs for the first time or comes along with any of the following symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Bluish skin
  • Confusion
  • It continuously occurs for no obvious reason
  • It happens in reaction to an insect bite or after taking medicine

A healthcare provider can assess your health history and symptoms to determine what is causing your wheezing and what treatment, if any, would be best.

If your wheezing comes and goes and it’s been determined that there’s nothing serious behind it, you can do a few things at home to alleviate it, in addition to taking any prescription medications. According to Dr. Sood, some of those things include the following:

  • Doing breathing exercises: “Sometimes, taking slow, deep breaths can help,” noted Dr. Sood.
  • Propping yourself up with pillows at night: If a healthcare provider knows or suspects your wheezing is due to GERD or heartburn, they may recommend doing your best to be angled upright during the night. That position keeps your stomach acid from irritating your windpipe.
  • Using a humidifier at night: Steam therapy can help, but it’s not for everyone. “Some people say it’s a trigger for them,” said Dr. Sood. A good way to test it out: Run a steamy shower, hang out in the bathroom, and see how you feel.
  • Keeping pets out of your bedroom: If you have allergies or asthma triggered by pets, it’s best to keep them out of your sleeping space. “If your wheezing is triggered by an exposure to an allergen, you should remove that allergen immediately,” said Dr. Panettieri.
  • Running an air purifier: Using an air purifier with a HEPA filter can help pull allergens out of the air you breathe, added Dr. Panettieri.
  • Avoiding smoking: Smoking irritates your lungs and can make wheezing worse, said Dr. Panettieri.

Wheezing is having trouble breathing fully and making a whistling or rattling sound in your chest when you do. Wheezing can have many causes, from mild but irritating ones (like allergies) to life-threatening ones (like heart failure or anaphylaxis).

The best way to get rid of wheezing is to treat the underlying cause. See a healthcare provider to get the proper diagnosis and treatment.

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