Wheezing: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Wheezing happens when the breathing tubes in the lungs are narrowed. You can hear a whistling sound when you breathe.

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

Wheezing requires medical attention if it is severe or also includes difficulty breathing.

This article covers the symptoms and causes of wheezing, medications that can cause wheezing, its treatment and diagnosis, complications of wheezing, and when to get medical care for wheezing.

Woman using an inhaler

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Symptoms of Wheezing

Symptoms of wheezing can include:

  • A high-pitched whistling when breathing out, breathing in, or both
  • Trouble 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 is when airways become narrowed and cause difficulty breathing
  • Breathing an unknown substance into the lungs
  • Lung infections like bronchitis, emphysema, and pneumonia
  • Viruses, including the common cold, in children

Other causes of wheezing include:

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

What Medications Can Cause Wheezing?

Several medications can cause an asthma attack, including:

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

How to Treat Wheezing

In emergency situations, treating wheezing might include:

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

At-Home Treatments for Wheezing

To treat wheezing at home, it's advised to:

  • Sit in a warm, humid environment, like a steamy shower or with a vaporizer.
  • Avoid smoking or smoky environments.
  • Avoid allergens like pollen.
  • Drink warm fluids.
  • Avoid cold and dry air.
  • Try breathing exercises.

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Wheezing?

To determine the cause of wheezing that doesn't respond to at-home treatment, a healthcare provider might do the following:

  • Conduct a physical exam and asked about the wheezing's timeline and severity level
  • Listen to your lungs
  • Blood tests, including tests to check the amount of oxygen in the blood
  • Chest X-ray or lung function tests

At a hospital, treatment might include:

When to See a Healthcare Provider

It's advised to see a healthcare provider if a case of wheezing:

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

Wheezing can require emergency care when:

  • Caused by an allergic reaction to medicine or an insect bite
  • Accompanied by changes in skin color or feeling disoriented
  • Causing breathing trouble

Wheezing: When to Seek Emergency Care

With wheezing, emergency care is advised if:

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

Summary

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

Aspirin, NSAIDs, beta-blockers, and antibiotics can increase the chance of an asthma attack or an allergic attack that could include wheezing.

Treating wheezing in an emergency might include using an asthma inhaler or an epinephrine shot for an allergy. For mild wheezing, at-home treatments include breathing in warm and humid air. Avoiding smoke, drinking warm fluids, and doing breathing exercises could also help.

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

A Word From Verywell

Wheezing can be uncomfortable and even frightening, but the good news is that pinpointing the cause and preventing further instances are possible. In children, wheezing is often caused by an infection, which can also be treated. If you are experiencing wheezing for the first time, it's advised to get 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 if it's left untreated in severe cases. In case of an allergy or asthma attack, getting treatment from an inhaler or epinephrine shot is crucial. In milder cases, wheezing can be addressed at home, since it's likely caused by a cold or other viral infection (especially in children).

  • Can wheezing be treated at home?

    In cases of wheezing caused by an infection or cold, the condition may be able to be treated at home. Sitting in warm and humid air, such as in a steamy bathroom or next to a vaporizer, could help with discomfort. Avoiding allergens, smoke, and cold air could also help, as could drinking warm fluids. For children, keeping them calm can be helpful. If your wheezing is getting worse, seek medical care right away.

  • Is wheezing a symptom of COVID-19?

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

    However, unlike asthma attacks, COVID-19 could also be accompanied by a fever, swelling, rash, loss of taste or small, and nasal congestion.

11 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.
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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 health care technologies, paying for health care, and simple measures that we all can take to work toward better health.