Wheezing: Causes, symptoms and treatment

By Jenilee Matz, MPH Apr 13, 2023 • 4 min

Wheezing is a continuous, high-pitched musical or whistling sound that occurs during breathing. The wheezing sound is often most obvious when exhaling (breathing out), but you may also hear it when inhaling (breathing in). If someone is wheezing, it may mean they’re having trouble breathing.

What causes wheezing?

Wheezing is a symptom that occurs due to inflammation and narrowing of any part of your airway, from your throat to your lungs. This can be caused by an allergic reaction, respiratory tract infection, obstruction from a foreign object or other issues. The most common causes of chronic wheezing are asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). Both conditions cause narrowing and bronchospasms in the small airways of the lungs. Causes of wheezing may include the following:

  • Asthma
  • COPD
  • Allergies and anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction)
  • Inhalation of a foreign object
  • Respiratory tract infections, such as bronchitis and pneumonia
  • Emphysema
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Heart failure
  • Lung cancer
  • Obstructive sleep apnea (when breathing stops and starts during sleep)
  • Certain medications, such as aspirin or angiotensin-converting (ACE) inhibitors
  • Smoking
  • Vocal cord problems

In some cases, wheezing presents with a cough. This may happen if you have an upper respiratory tract infection or asthma, for instance. Some people refer to this as a "wheezing cough," but note this is an incorrect term.

Wheezing in a baby or child

Wheezing is a common symptom of respiratory disease in infants and young children. In fact, 1 in 3 children experiences a wheezing episode before 3 years of age. The most common cause of wheezing in children under 2 years is viral bronchiolitis. This a lung infection that causes inflammation and congestion in the bronchioles (small airways) of the lungs, which usually occurs due to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

What to do about wheezing

Contact your healthcare provider if you have wheezing:

  • Without knowing the cause of the wheezing
  • That is recurrent (keeps coming back)
  • And have trouble breathing, fast breathing or bluish skin color for a brief period

Seek medical help right away if you have wheezing that:

  • Comes on suddenly after being stung by a bee, taking medication or eating food
  • Occurs with severe difficulty breathing or bluish skin color
  • Happens after choking on food or an object

Your healthcare provider will likely want to see you so they can ask about your symptoms and do an exam. You may need lung function tests, a chest X-ray or blood work. If your child has wheezing, their healthcare provider may check to make sure they didn’t swallow a foreign object.

Treatment will depend on the cause of your wheezing. Your healthcare provider may prescribe medications or an inhaler. When mild wheezing is caused by a cold or other virus, using a humidifier, drinking warm fluids and avoiding tobacco smoke may bring you relief. Follow your treatment plan as directed by your provider and let them know if your symptoms don’t improve.

Clinically reviewed and updated April 2023.

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