Breath sounds can be either normal or abnormal. These sounds come from the lungs when you breathe in or out. These sounds can be heard using a stethoscope or simply when breathing.
Abnormal breath sounds can indicate a lung problem, such as:
- an obstruction
- an infection
- fluid in the lungs
Listening to breath sounds is an important part of diagnosing many different medical conditions.
Your doctor will use a medical instrument called a stethoscope to listen for normal breath sounds. A normal breath sound is similar to the sound of air. Your doctor can hear normal breath sounds by placing the stethoscope on your:
- rib cage
Your doctor can also use a stethoscope to hear abnormal breathing sounds, which may include:
- rhonchi, which are low-pitched sounds
- crackles, which are high-pitched sounds
- wheezing, which is a high-pitched whistling sound caused by narrowing of the bronchial tubes
- stridor, which is a harsh, vibratory sound caused by narrowing of the trachea
Abnormal breath sounds are usually indicators of problems in the lungs or airways. The most common causes of abnormal breath sounds are:
- heart failure
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, such as emphysema
- a foreign body in the lungs or airways
If the small air sacs in the lungs fill with fluid, any air movement in the sacs, such as when you’re breathing, causes crackles. The air sacs will fill with fluid when a person has pneumonia or heart failure. Rhonchi occur when air tries to pass through bronchial tubes that contain fluid or mucus. Wheezing occurs when the bronchial tubes become inflamed and narrowed. Stridor occurs when the trachea narrows.
Go to the emergency room or call local emergency services if breathing difficulty comes on suddenly, is severe, or if someone stops breathing. Cyanosis, a bluish color of skin and mucous membranes due to lack of oxygen, can occur along with abnormal breath sounds. Cyanosis involving the lips or the face is also medical emergency. Your doctor will also look for the following signs of an emergency:
- nasal flaring, which is an enlargement of the opening of the nostrils when breathing that may be a sign that breathing is difficult and is usually seen in babies and young children
- abdominal breathing, which is the use of the abdominal muscles to assist breathing
- accessory muscle use, which is the use of the neck and chest wall muscles to assist breathing
- stridor, which indicates an upper airway obstruction
Your doctor will review your medical history to determine what’s causing you to have abnormal breathing sounds. This includes any current or past medical conditions and any medications you’re taking. Tell your doctor when you noticed the abnormal sound and what you were doing before you heard it. Be sure to mention any other symptoms you may be experiencing.
The doctor will then administer one or several tests to determine what’s causing the abnormal sound. These tests include:
- a CT scan
- a chest X-ray
- blood tests
- a pulmonary function test
- a sputum culture
Your doctor can use a pulmonary function test to measure:
- how quickly you inhale and exhale
- how much air you take in
- how much air you exhale
A sputum culture is a test for detecting foreign organisms in the mucus of the lungs, such as abnormal bacteria or fungi. For this test, your doctor will ask you to cough and then collect the sputum you cough up. This sample is then sent to a lab for analysis.
Treatment options are available. The treatment options that work best for you depend on your diagnosis. Your doctor will take the cause and the severity of your symptoms into consideration when recommending a treatment.
Medications are often prescribed to clear up infections or to open the airways. However, in severe cases such as fluid in the lungs or an obstruction in the airways, hospitalization may be necessary.
If you have asthma, COPD, or bronchitis, your doctor will probably prescribe breathing treatments to open the airways. People with asthma may be given an inhaler to use daily to prevent asthma attacks and inflammation of the airways.
Call local emergency services or go to the nearest emergency room if someone you know:
- has breathing difficulty that occurs suddenly
- has severe breathing difficulty
- has cyanosis involving the lips or the face
- stops breathing
Make an appointment with your doctor if you think you’re having other symptoms of breathing issues, such as abnormal breath sounds. Having an open conversation with your doctor will help them to identify any health conditions in the early stages.