Wheezing: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Wheezing occurs when the breathing tubes in the lungs are narrowed. You may hear a hiss when you breathe.

A asthma attack is a common cause of wheezing. Other causes include respiratory infections like the flu (flu) or pneumonia, bronchitis (inflammation of the airways), allergic reactions and smoking.

Wheezing requires medical attention if it is severe or is also accompanied by breathing difficulties.

This article discusses the symptoms and causes of wheezing, medications that can cause wheezing, its treatment and diagnosis, complications of wheezing, and when to see a doctor for wheezing.

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Symptoms of wheezing

Symptoms of wheezing can include:

  • A high-pitched whistle when exhaling, inhaling, or both
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Symptoms of an asthma attack, such as coughing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath

Causes of wheezing

The most common causes of wheezing are:

  • An asthma attack, which occurs when the airways narrow and cause difficulty breathing
  • Breathing an unknown substance into the lungs
  • Lung infections like bronchitis, emphysemaand pneumonia
  • Viruses, including the common cold, in children

Other causes of wheezing include:

  • Allergic reaction to an insect bite or medication
  • acid reflux
  • Heart failure
  • Smoking

What drugs can cause wheezing?

Several medications can cause an asthma attack, including:

Allergic reactions can also cause wheezing. Common drug allergies that can cause wheezing include:

How to Treat Wheezing

In emergency situations, treatment for wheezing may include:

  • A asthma inhaler
  • Epinephrine injection (used to combat severe allergic reactions)

Home treatments for wheezing

To treat wheezing at home, it is advisable to:

  • Sit in a warm, humid environment, such as a steam shower or with a vaporizer.
  • Avoid smoking or smoky environments.
  • Avoid allergens like pollen.
  • Drink hot liquids.
  • Avoid cold, dry air.
  • Try breathing exercises.

Are there tests to diagnose the cause of wheezing?

To determine the cause of wheezing that is not responding to home treatment, a health care provider may do the following:

  • Perform a physical exam and ask about the timing and severity of wheezing
  • Listen to your lungs
  • Blood tests, including tests to check the amount of oxygen in the blood
  • Chest x-ray or lung function tests

In a hospital, treatment may include:

When to See a Health Care Provider

It is advisable to consult a health care provider if a case of wheezing:

  • Occurs regularly, especially without a known cause
  • Occurs without a known cause
  • Happens for the first time
  • Cannot be controlled with prescribed inhalers

Wheezing may require emergency care when:

  • Caused by an allergic reaction to a drug or an insect bite
  • Accompanied by changes in skin color or feeling disoriented
  • Cause respiratory problems

Wheezing: when to seek emergency care

If wheezing occurs, emergency care is advised if:

  • The wheezing is severe.
  • A person wheezes for the first time.
  • Wheezing includes significant difficulty breathing, bluish skin, confusion, or changes in mental states.
  • Wheezing occurs regularly.
  • Wheezing is a response to an allergen.

Summary

Wheezing is a high-pitched whistle that occurs with breathing. It usually occurs during an asthma attack, lung disease or when a foreign object reaches the lungs. Allergic reactions, smoking, acid reflux, and heart failure can also cause wheezing.

Aspirin, NSAIDs, beta-blockers and antibiotics can increase the risk of an asthma attack or an allergic attack which may include wheezing.

Treatment for wheezing in an emergency may include using an asthma inhaler or an epinephrine injection for an allergy. For mild wheezing, home treatments include breathing in warm, moist air. Avoiding smoking, drinking hot liquids and doing breathing exercises can also help.

Diagnosing the cause of a case of wheezing may require a physical exam, chest X-rays, lung exams, and blood tests.

A word from Verywell

Wheezing can be uncomfortable and even scary, but the good news is that it’s possible to identify the cause and prevent further cases. In children, wheezing is often caused by an infection, which can also be treated. If you experience wheezing for the first time, it is advisable to seek emergency care to rule out any life-threatening conditions like allergies or an asthma attack.

Frequently Asked Questions


  • Is wheezing dangerous?

    Wheezing can be dangerous if its cause is unknown or left untreated in severe cases. In the event of an allergy or an asthma attack, it is crucial to seek treatment with an inhaler or an injection of epinephrine. In less severe cases, wheezing can be treated at home, as it’s likely caused by a cold or other viral infection (especially in children).


  • Can wheezing be treated at home?

    If wheezing is caused by an infection or a cold, the condition can be treated at home. Sitting in warm, moist air, such as in a steamy bathroom or next to a vaporizer, can help relieve discomfort. Avoiding allergens, smoke, and cold air might also help, as might drinking hot liquids. For children, keeping them calm can be helpful. If your wheezing gets worse, see a doctor right away.


  • Is wheezing a symptom of COVID-19?

    Wheezing can be a symptom of COVID-19 in some people, especially those with asthma. Shortness of breath is also a symptom of both conditions.

    However, unlike asthma attacks, COVID-19 can also be accompanied by fever, swelling, rash, loss of taste, or mild nasal congestion.

By Neha Kashyap

Neha is a New York-based health journalist who has written for WebMD, ADDitude, HuffPost Life, and dailyRx News. Neha enjoys writing about mental health, elder care, innovative healthcare technologies, paying for healthcare, and simple steps we can all take to improve our health.

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