Breath Sounds

Written by April Kahn
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Are Breath Sounds?

Breath sounds are divided into two categories: normal and abnormal (adventitious). These sounds come from the lungs when you breathe in or breathe out. These sounds can be heard using a stethoscope or simply when breathing.

Breath sounds can indicate problems within the lungs such as obstructions, inflammation, or infection. An abnormal breath sound can indicate fluid in the lungs or asthma. Breath sounds are an important part of diagnosing many different medical conditions.

What Kind of Breath Sounds Are There?

Normal breath sounds are not usually heard when a person breathes. Instead, they are heard using a medical instrument called a stethoscope. A normal breath sound is similar to the sound of air. A doctor can hear normal breath sounds by placing the stethoscope on your chest, back, collarbone, and ribcage.

A stethoscope can also pick up abnormal breathing sounds. These sounds are described as:

  • rhonchi (snoring sounds)
  • rales (clicking, rattling, bubbling)
  • wheezing (a high-pitched whistling sound caused by obstruction of the bronchial tubes)
  • stridor (a harsh, vibratory sound caused by obstruction of the trachea)

What Are the Causes of Abnormal Breath Sounds?

Abnormal breath sounds are usually indicators of problems within the lungs or airways. The most common causes of abnormal breath sounds are:

  • pneumonia
  • fluid in the lungs
  • heart failure
  • abnormally thick chest wall
  • reduced airflow
  • emphysema
  • asthma
  • bronchitis
  • lung disease
  • foreign body in the lungs or airways

Rales occur when air opens up spaces that are normally closed to airflow. Rhonchi occur when the airways are obstructed. Wheezing occurs when the airways become inflamed and narrowed. Stridor occurs when there is a blockage in the windpipe.

When Are Breath Sounds a Medical Emergency?

It is a medical emergency if breathing difficulty comes on suddenly or seriously interferes with your breathing, or if someone stops breathing. Call 911.

Cyanosis (bluish color of skin and mucous membranes due to lack of oxygen) can occur along with abnormal breath sounds. Cyanosis is a medical emergency. Call 911.

If you have any of the following symptoms, notify your doctor:

  • nasal flaring (enlargement of the opening of the nostrils when breathing, may be a sign that breathing is difficult—usually seen in infants and young children)
  • difficulty breathing
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath

Finding Out the Cause

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 is causing the abnormal sound. These tests include:

  • computed tomography (CT) scan
  • chest X-ray
  • blood tests
  • pulmonary function test
  • sputum culture

A pulmonary function test is used 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 that is used to detect foreign organisms in the mucous of the lungs, such as abnormal bacteria or fungi. For this test, the 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 for Abnormal Breathing Sounds

There are a variety of treatment options available for abnormal breathing sounds. The treatment options that work best for you will be determined by your doctor. He or she will take into consideration the cause and the severity of your symptoms.

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 or bronchitis, you may also have trouble breathing. In these cases, your doctor will prescribe an inhaler to open the airways. People with asthma may be given an inhaler to use daily to prevent asthma attacks and inflammation of the airways.

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