When you breathe in and out, the exchange of air in your lungs produces turbulence called breath sounds. If you listen to your chest with a stethoscope, normal lung sounds should be louder when you breathe in and softer when you breathe out.
Changes in lung sounds can indicate many things. When they’re high-pitched, this can be cause for concern. This is because high-pitched wheezes often mean the airways are smaller in size than normal and air isn’t moving through as well as it once did. High-pitched breath sounds can indicate a medical emergency.
High-pitched breath sounds are often classified as “wheezing.” The sounds made are often described as having a musical or squeaky quality to them. They may sound like a person is whistling when breathing. While high-pitched wheezing sounds most often occur when a person is breathing out, they can also sometimes occur when a person breathes in.
Wheezing often indicates that someone’s airways have become narrowed. This can make breathing significantly more difficult and result in short, choppy breaths. They may appear as if they are working hard to breathe, and they may be red in the face and clutching their chest or throat.
Another high-pitched breath sound is called stridor. This occurs when a person has an obstruction in their upper airway or in the neck. Stridor has a sharper, more piercing sound than wheezing does.
High-pitched breath sounds that are wheezes can occur because of chronic diseases. According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common cause of recurring, wheezing high-pitched breath sounds is asthma. Additional causes include:
- anaphylaxis/anaphylactic shock
- burns due to smoke inhalation
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD)
- gastroesophageal reflux disease
- heart failure
- lung cancer
- obstructive sleep apnea
- respiratory syncytial virus infection
- respiratory tract infection
- vocal cord dysfunction
If a person’s high-pitched breath sounds are classified as stridor, causes may include:
- foreign body obstruction
- large airway tumor
When to Seek Help
Stridor typically indicates a medical emergency because the airway is often obstructed. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience the following symptoms along with high-pitched breath sounds:
- chest pain
- coughing up blood
- gasping for breath
- loss of consciousness/passing out
- nasal flaring (where the nostrils move in and out when breathing)
- pale skin
- skin that appears blue in color
- sweating excessively
- symptoms that begin after you take a new medication, eat a food you could be allergic to, or are stung by a bee
If your high-pitched breath sounds are not interfering with your ability to breathe, you can wait and make an appointment to see your doctor. However, these sounds shouldn’t be ignored as they can be an indicator of asthma or COPD.
When you seek treatment for high-pitched breath sounds, your doctor will often measure your pulse oximetry. They’ll put a small, clip-like device on your finger. This measures how much oxygen is in your blood. If your oxygen reading is less than 90 percent, this means you are severely deprived of oxygen.
In addition to looking at your physical symptoms, such as work of breathing (how much effort it is for you to breathe), your doctor will also listen to your breath sounds with a stethoscope. Additional tests may include:
- arterial blood gas analysis, which measures the amount of oxygen in your blood and its pH
- lung function tests, such as spirometry
- X-ray imaging to view your lungs and airways to determine if there are any blockages, tumors, or fluid build-up in the lungs
Your doctor may recommend other tests based on the underlying condition they think you may have.
Treatment for high-pitched breath sounds depends upon their underlying cause. If your airway is in danger of closing up, your doctor may insert a breathing tube down your throat. This tube is connected to an artificial breathing machine known as a ventilator.
In some instances, inhaled medications can help to open up the airways, making it easier to breathe. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection if an infection is causing the high-pitched breathing sounds.
At-home methods you can utilize to treat high-pitched breath sounds that aren’t an emergency include:
- Avoid cold, dry air and cigarette smoking. Both of these can make it harder for you to breathe.
- Drink plenty of warmed fluids, such as hot water or tea.
- Keep the air moist. Moist air can help to open up the lungs and make breathing easier. Taking a shower or sitting in the restroom while the shower is running with the door closed can help to moisten the air. You can also use a humidifier, which releases warm, moist air. However, clean your humidifier regularly as the device is prone to building up with fungus.
Other treatments will depend upon your specific diagnosis.