Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling sound associated with labored breathing.
Wheezing occurs when a person tries to breathe deeply through air passages (bronchia) that are narrowed because of muscle contractions or filled with mucus as a result of: allergy, infection, illness, or irritation. Wheezing is experienced by 10-15% of the population.
Wheezing most commonly occurs when a person is exhaling. It is sometimes accompanied by a mild sensation of tightness in the chest. Anxiety about not being able to breathe easily can cause muscle tension that makes the wheezing worse.
Causes & symptoms
Wheezing is the symptom most associated with asthma. It can be aggravated by dry air and high altitude. A 2001 study also found a connection between nighttime wheezing/asthma and gastroesophageal reflux, or the flow of stomach acid backward into the lower part of the esophagus. Wheezing can be caused by:
- exposure to allergens (food, pollen, and other substances that cause a person to have an allergic reaction)
- ice-cold drinks, or very cold air
- strenuous exercise
- weather changes
- foreign objects trapped in the airway
- cystic fibrosis and other genetic disorders
- respiratory illnesses like pneumonia, bronchitis, congestive heart failure, and emphysema
The symptoms of wheezing are: labored breathing, whistling sound upon breathing, shortness of breath, and a tight or heavy feeling in the chest.
Breathing problems can be life-threatening. Immediate medical attention is required whenever a person:
- turns blue or gray and stops breathing
- becomes extremely short of breath, and is unable to speak
- coughs up bubbly pink or white phlegm
- seems to be suffocating
- develops a fever of 101°F (38.3°C) or higher
- wheezes most of the time, and coughs up gray or greenish phlegm
A family physician, allergist, or pulmonary specialist takes a medical history that includes questions about allergies, or unexplained symptoms that may be the result of allergic reactions. If the pattern of the patient's symptoms suggests the existence of allergy, skin and blood tests are performed to identify the precise nature of the problem.
A pulmonary function test may be ordered to measure the amount of air moving through the patient's breathing passages. X rays are sometimes indicated for patients whose wheezing seems to be caused by chronic bronchitis or emphysema.
Patients whose wheezing is related to asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or a severe allergic reaction may benefit from alternative medicine but they must continue to have their condition monitored by a conventional physician.
Mild wheezing may be relieved by drinking plenty of juice, water, weak tea, and broth. This helps to replace fluids lost because of rapid breathing and loosen mucus in the air passages. Ice-cold drinks should be avoided. A vaporizer can help clear air passages. A steam tent, created by lowering the face toward a sink filled with hot water, placing a towel over the head and sink, and inhaling the steam, can do likewise.
Several herbal remedies exist for the treatment of wheezing and asthma.
- Baical skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) decoction relieves wheezing.
- Coltsfoot tea may relieve wheezing.
- Cramp bark (Viburnum opulus) tincture eases breathing.
- Elecampane (Inula helenium) can help to clear mucus.
- Garlic (Allium sativum) can ease asthma symptoms.
- German chamomile (Chamomilla recutita) infusion can relieve wheezing.
- Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) eases asthma symptoms.
- Marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis) root eases asthma symptoms.
- Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) tea in a vaporizer relieves wheezing.
- Nettle (Urtica dioca) infusion relieves wheezing.
- Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) relaxes muscle spasms leading to a reduction in wheezing.
- Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) infusion relieves wheezing.
Wheezing can be alleviated by drinking licorice tea. The tea is prepared by steeping one teaspoon of licorice (Yashti madbu) root in one cup of water, adding 5-10 drops of mahanarayan oil just before drinking. The patient should take one sip every 5-10 minutes. A remedy for breathlessness is a mixture of onion juice (one quarter cup), black pepper (0.125 tsp), and honey (1 tsp).
Mustard seeds have bronchial system healing properties. Brown mustard oil may be massaged onto the chest. A mustard tea (one quarter teaspoon each ground mustard seed and pippali or black pepper) with honey may be drunk two or three times daily or sipped throughout the day. Another mustard remedy is taking brown mustard oil (1 tsp) with natural sugar (1 tsp) two or three times daily.
Homeopathic remedies are chosen for each patient based on his or her pattern of symptoms. Arsenicum is indicated for patients who experience restlessness, fearfulness, wheezing, and shortness of breath between the hours of midnight and 3 A.M. Spongia is recommended for those who have dry wheezing, which may occur as the patient is falling asleep, a feeling of suffocation, and a dry cough. Lobelia is for patients with chest tightness and wheezing that is worsened in cold air. Sambucus is indicated for persons whose wheezing is worsened after midnight, but who don't experience the fear or restlessness experienced by an arsenicum patient. Pulsatilla is recommended for those who are affectionate, and feel stifled in warm rooms. Ipecac is for patients who have a lot of phlegm in the lungs (wheezing is accompanied by rattling sounds in the chest), coughing, and possibly vomiting. Bryonia is for patients with dry wheezing,
Other treatments for wheezing include:
- Aromatherapy. The essential oils of lavender, eucalyptus, and rosemary can relieve congestion. Adding German chamomile essential oil to a vaporizer can relieve wheezing.
- Diet. Eliminating red meat, and wheat and dairy products and following a macrobiotic diet of vegetarian foods may relieve asthma symptoms.
- Relaxation techniques. Because anxiety can worsen an asthma attack, and therefore wheezing, meditation, biofeedback, deep breathing, or other stress-reduction methods may help promote relaxation.
- Supplements. Magnesium may help to prevent bronchial spasms. The frequency of asthma attacks may be reduced by taking vitamin C and the B complex vitamins.
- Yoga. Certain yoga positions (Bridge, Cobra, Pigeon, and Sphinx) may relieve wheezing by improving breathing control and reducing stress.
Bronchodilators (medications that help widen narrowed airways) may be prescribed for patients whose wheezing is the result of asthma. Antibiotics are generally used to cure acute bronchitis and other respiratory infections. Expectorants (cough-producing medications) or bronchodilators are prescribed to remove excess mucus from the breathing passages. If wheezing is caused by an allergic reaction, antihistamines will probably be prescribed to neutralize body chemicals that react to the allergen.
A new type of drug was being tested in late 2001 that blocks immunoglobulin E (IgE), an antibody produced in excessive levels in patients with hay fever. The drug also appears to prevent asthma in patients with chronic hay fever. The drug, called omalizumab, is the first in a new line of drugs expected to appear in the next few years.
If wheezing and asthma symptoms worsen in the nighttime, diagnosis and treatment of possible acid reflux in the stomach might ease symptoms.
Mild wheezing caused by infection or acute illness usually disappears when the underlying cause is eliminated.
Some doctors believe that childhood respiratory infections may activate parts of the immune system that prevent asthma from developing.
Stopping smoking can eliminate wheezing; so can reducing or preventing exposure to allergens or conditions that cause wheezing.
A person prone to wheezing should wear a scarf or surgical mask over the nose and mouth during physical exertion outdoors during cold weather. Likewise, wearing a surgical mask outdoors during the allergy season is helpful for persons whose wheezing is triggered by allergies.
Licorice root tea may prevent asthma (wheezing) attacks. Ayurvedic herbal remedies to prevent asthma symptoms include:
- cinnamon (1 tsp) and trikatu (0.25 tsp) tea with honey twice daily
- licorice and ginger (0.25 tsp each) tea
- bay leaf (0.5 tsp) and pippali (0.25 tsp) mixed in honey taken two or three times daily
- sitopaladi (0.5 tsp), punarnova (0.5 tsp), pippali (pinch), and abrak bhasma (pinch) mixed with honey taken once daily
- spinach juice (0.125 cup) and pippali (pinch) taken twice daily
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