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Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling sound during breathing. It occurs when air moves through narrowed breathing tubes in the lungs.
Wheezing is a sign that a person may be having breathing problems. The sound of wheezing is most obvious when breathing out (exhaling). It may also be heard when breathing in (inhaling).
Wheezing most often comes from the small breathing tubes (bronchial tubes) deep in the lungs. But it may be due to a blockage in larger airways or in persons with certain vocal cord problems.
Causes of wheezing may include any of the following:
- Breathing a foreign object into the lungs
- Emphysema (COPD), especially when a respiratory infection is present
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease
- Heart failure (cardiac asthma)
- Insect sting that causes an allergic reaction
- Medications (particularly aspirin)
- Viral infection, especially in infants younger than age 2
Take all of your medications as directed.
Sitting in an area where there is moist, heated air may help relieve some symptoms. This can be done by running a hot shower or using a vaporizer.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if wheezing:
- Occurs for the first time
- Occurs with significant shortness of breath, bluish skin, confusion, or mental status changes
- Keeps occurring without explanation
- Is caused by an allergic reaction to a bite or medication
If wheezing is severe or occurs with severe shortness of breath, you may have to go directly to the nearest emergency department.
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
The doctor or nurse will perform a physical exam and ask about your medical history and symptoms. Questions about your wheezing may include when it started, how long it has lasted, when it is worse, and what might have caused it.
The physical examination may include listening to the lung sounds (auscultation). If your child is the one with symptoms, the doctor will make sure he or she did not swallow a foreign object.
Tests that may be done include:
A hospital stay may be needed if:
- Breathing is particularly difficult
- Medicines need to be given through a vein (IV)
- Supplemental oxygen is required
- The person needs to be closely watched by medical personnel
Lugogo N, Que LG, Fertel D, Kraft M. Asthma. In: Mason RJ, Murray JF, Broaddus VC, et al., eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2010:chap 38.
Schraufnagel DE, Murray JF. History and physical examination. In: Mason RJ, Murray JF, Broaddus VC, et al., eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2010:chap 17.
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial Team.