Wheezing

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 10, 2015
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Wheezing refers to the term that describes a shrill or highpitched whistling sound that is made while breathing. The symptom occurs as a result of narrowed airways and/or the presence of inflammation, and could indicate a serious breathing problem that may require a medical diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

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Definition & Facts

Wheezing is a sound resembling a whistle that occurs while breathing. It can be a sign of a respiratory illness or some other serious breathing issue, but can also be brought on by certain triggers like smoking, allergies, and pollen.

Most commonly it is associated with exhalation (breathing out), but in severe cases it can also be heard during inhalation (breathing in). Wheezing can be experienced by anyone, however, there are certain risk factors that can increase one's risk of developing the symptom.

  • People who suffer from allergies
  • People with Cancer diagnoses
  • Children who attend public daycare
  • Anyone who smokes, past or present
  • People with asthma (this is hereditary and commonly runs in families)

Causes

In general, wheezing occurs when airways become narrowed and/or as a result of inflammation. It is likely an indication of a breathing disturbance and is most commonly caused by asthma, though other things such as infection, severe allergic reactions, and physical obstructions like tumors and foreign objects also contribute to wheezing. In order to stop wheezing, a person must see a doctor who can expertly diagnose the symptom and identify its cause.

In some cases wheezing can suggest the presence of a more serious issue, such as:

Wheezing can be brought on by simple short-term illnesses or serious medical emergencies. Some of these include:

When to See a Doctor

Because wheezing can indicate so many things, it is important to see a doctor who can diagnose the symptom and determine the cause. When brought on by a short-term illness, wheezing typically goes away once the illness clears up. But for people suffering with a long-term condition, such as chronic asthma, long-term treatment is often necessary.

In non-emergency situations, individuals should consult with their doctor so that the wheezing can be assessed and treated accordingly, regardless of if the wheeze is a new symptom, recurring, or mild in nature. This is especially important in cases where it occurs in conjunction with:

  • breathing that is labored or more rapid than normal
  • skin color that momentarily appears slightly bluish in color
  • if the wheezing has affected the individual's mental capacities

Seek immediate emergency help if wheezing:

  • occurs immediately following a bee sting, after taking a medication, or after consuming a food that could cause an allergic reaction
  • is accompanied by labored or shallow breathing, or skin that is bluish in color
  • begins after choking on food or a small object

Treatment & Therapy

If wheezing is to be successfully treated, two things must first happen. First, the airway inflammation must be regulated. The excess inflammation and mucus in the airways can be managed with prescription anti-inflammatory medications. These are commonly found in inhaler form, but over-the-counter long-acting tablets and syrups (mostly for children) also provide relief to most people.

Next, quick-acting medications, such as bronchodilators, are used to open up a patient's breathing tubes and also to relieve a cough. These medicines work by relaxing the smooth muscles that encompass the breathing tubes. In cases where wheezing is a result of a long-term illness, such as chronic asthma or COPD, a doctor might prescribe a powerful combination of both anti-inflammatory and quick-acting medications.

Sometimes, treatment also calls for having a breathing tube put down a patient's throat. The doctor will decide the best course of action, and people are advised against taking treatment into their own hands.

In addition to medications, there are also several alternative home remedies that have long been thought to relieve wheezing in some individuals. It is important to remember that these methods may work for some people but provide no relief for others. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), the following methods and substances may help to reduce wheezing that is caused by asthma:

Prevention & Prophylaxis

For people suffering with a chronic illness, such as COPD or asthma, wheezing cannot be prevented entirely. There are, however, several preventative methods that are commonly practiced in an attempt to either relieve a wheeze or to reduce the likeliness of developing the symptom. The most popular of these methods include:

  • Keep air moisturized by using a humidifier, taking long and steamy showers with the door closed, or sitting in a sauna. Avoid places with cold, dry climates, since it can intensify wheezing.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially warm fluids like tea, coffee, and warm cider. The heat keeps the airways relaxed and loosens up any excess mucus that may be lodged in the throat.
  • Avoid cigarette smoke, as both active and passing smoke can cause a cough to become drastically worse
  • Follow the doctor's advice and take all medications as prescribed.

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