What is Wheezing?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Wheezing is a sound the body may make when people exhale, and it may be accompanied by some difficulty in inhalation. It’s common to assume that this whistling or squeaking sound means a person has asthma, but actually, a number of breathing conditions can cause wheezing. The underlying cause of the sound is inflammation of the airways.

Bronchodilator inhalers are used to treat asthma symptoms.
Bronchodilator inhalers are used to treat asthma symptoms.

It’s certainly true that inflammation of the airways created by asthma might result in wheezing. The typical asthma wheeze can be present especially when children and adults are untreated. It’s worth noting that, in children, asthma may more express itself as a cough, or a combination of coughing and wheezing may be present.

Wheezing and coughing are often caused by the inflammation of the airways.
Wheezing and coughing are often caused by the inflammation of the airways.

The reason people are advised to think beyond asthma if they do wheeze is because of the many other causal factors of inflamed airways. For instance, this sound can begin quite suddenly if people start having a severe allergic reaction. A harbinger of anaphylactic allergic reaction can be swollen mouth, face, tongue and presence of difficulty breathing, which might be expressed as wheezing. It’s very important to note a person’s appearance any time this whistling sound occurs. If a person is struggling for breath or is extremely pale or has blue coloration at the fingers or toes, he or she is not getting adequate oxygen and needs emergency assistance.

Wheezing may be detected through the use of a stethoscope.
Wheezing may be detected through the use of a stethoscope.

A number of infections might result in regular wheezes. In very young children, a common one is bronchiolitis. Young children are also prone to the virus RSV or respiratory syncytial virus that may impair breathing and result in wheeze. Since both of these viruses affect a fairly vulnerable population, physician care is warranted for diagnosis and treatment. Another serious illness associated with inflamed airways is cystic fibrosis.

Inflamed airways are associated with cystic fibrosis.
Inflamed airways are associated with cystic fibrosis.

While many things that create wheezing are illnesses directly tied to the respiratory system, there are some conditions that many people wouldn’t associate with breathing troubles. The most prominent of these is gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD. Reflux sends stomach acid back up the esophagus and this may have impact on the lungs and affect breathing, resulting in wheezing sounds. It can occur in children and adults, and if kids have a persistent wheeze not tied to asthma or other illnesses, investigation for GERD is recommended.

Wheezing coughs are often accompanied by shortness of breath.
Wheezing coughs are often accompanied by shortness of breath.

Treating wheezing may depend on causal factors. In most cases the goal is to reduce inflammation of airways via anti-inflammatory medications. Underlying conditions have to be addressed too. With many of these causes, once wheezing is treated it won’t come back. Only in disorders like asthma or cystic fibrosis is it likely that some form of wheeze could remain, but even then, medicines may control it so it is rarely heard.

GERD may cause wheezing.
GERD may cause wheezing.
Humidifiers might benefit people who have a wheezing cough.
Humidifiers might benefit people who have a wheezing cough.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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anon303277

Are hiccups a symptom of COPD?

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