Wheezing as a Sign of Respiratory Distress

If you or your child have ever gone to the doctor with a cough, you may have been asked if you have noticed any wheezing. This is a commonly used medical term but it's often misunderstood. If you aren't quite sure what that means, you've come to the right place.

Wheezing occurs when there is swelling in the airways, making it more difficult to breathe. It is a sign that someone is not breathing as well as they should and could mean they are not getting as much oxygen as they need.

Child having a breathing treatment
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What Wheezing Sounds Like

Wheezing is simply a whistling sound made when breathing. It is typically heard when a person exhales (breathes out) and sounds like a high-pitched whistle. Sometimes it is heard when inhaling — or breathing in — as well. It is not simply loud breathing or the sound of congestion or mucus when you breathe. 

Wheezing is commonly heard in the lungs of people with:

Wheezing is usually a sign that there is a problem with the lungs. It is most often caused by swelling in the lower airway. It can be a medical emergency if not treated quickly.

What to Do

If you notice your child is wheezing — or you think she is — contact her healthcare provider right away. If she has never wheezed before, she will likely need to be seen by her pediatrician so they can figure out what is wrong and how to treat her. Treatment will depend on the severity of the illness and how much difficulty she is having with her breathing.

If you feel that you are wheezing — your chest feels tight and you hear a whistling sound when you breathe, contact your healthcare provider or seek medical attention. If you have a history of wheezing, then you should have a treatment plan in place and know what to do. If you follow your plan and it does not help, seek medical attention right away.

If you do not have any medications available to treat wheezing, sitting in a bathroom with the shower turned on as hot as it will get may help. Make sure you close the door and don't sit in the water, just sit in the bathroom and breathe in the steamy air.

If you have signs of a severe allergic reaction that occurs with the wheezing, such as tongue or lip swelling, vomiting, dizziness, rash or feeling like the throat is closing, call 911 or seek emergency medical attention right immediately.

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2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Al-shamrani A, Bagais K, Alenazi A, Alqwaiee M, Al-harbi AS. Wheezing in children: Approaches to diagnosis and management. Int J Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2019;6(2):68-73. doi:10.1016/j.ijpam.2019.02.003

  2. U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Wheezing.

Additional Reading
  • Wheezing. Medical Encyclopedia. MedlinePlus. US National Library of Medicine. US Department of Health and Human Services. National Institutes of Health.