What causes wheezing? 33 possible conditions

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What Is Wheezing?

Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling sound made while you breathe. It is heard most clearly when you exhale, but in severe cases, it can be heard when you inhale. It is caused by narrowed airways and/or inflammation.

Wheezing may be a symptom of a serious breathing problem that requires a medical diagnosis and subsequent treatment.

Causes of Wheezing

According to the Mayo Clinic, asthma is the most common cause of wheezing. (Mayo Clinic). However, there are many other potential causes for wheezing. Before you can stop your wheeze, your doctor must first determine its cause.

Wheezing may also be an indication of:

  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • emphysema
  • gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • heart failure
  • lung cancer
  • sleep apnea
  • vocal cord dysfunction

Wheezing may be triggered by short-term illnesses or health emergencies. These include:

  • allergic reaction (anaphylaxis)
  • bronchiolitis
  • bronchitis
  • inhaling a foreign object
  • pneumonia
  • reaction to smoking
  • respiratory tract infection

Risk Factors for Wheezing

Wheezing can happen to anyone. However, there are certain risk factors that can increase your chances of developing a wheeze. Hereditary illnesses, such as asthma, can run in families.

Wheezing can also occur in:

  • people with allergies
  • people with cancer
  • children in day care
  • smokers (past and current)

Controlling risk factors, such as smoking, may help improve wheezing. Avoid triggers, such as pollen and other allergens, if they make you wheeze. Some factors are out of your control, so the goal is to treat your symptoms to improve your overall quality of life.

When to Seek Medical Help

Tell your doctor when you experience wheezing for the first time. Your doctor needs to know if you are wheezing and having difficulty breathing, if your skin has a bluish tinge, or if your mental state is altered, even if it isn’t your first bout of wheezing.

Seek emergency medical care if you are wheezing while having difficulty catching your breath or experiencing hives and/or a swollen face or throat.

Treatment for Wheezing

Treatment for wheezing has two goals. First, airway inflammation must be controlled. Prescription anti-inflammatory medications can decrease inflammation and excess mucus in your airways. These typically come in the form of inhalers, but long-acting tablets may also be used. Syrups are used for young children.

The second step is to open up your breathing tubes with quick-acting medications. Bronchodilators are often used to treat wheezing and help relieve your cough. They work by relaxing the smooth muscles that encircle your breathing tubes. Your doctor might recommend both anti-inflammatory and quick-acting medications if the wheezing is related to a long-term illness, such as COPD or asthma.

Alternative Remedies

Home remedies may help improve wheezing in some people. For example, keeping your home warm and humid can open up your airways and help you breathe more easily. Sitting in a warm, steamy bathroom can sometimes help. Dry, cold climates can worsen wheezing, especially when exercising outdoors.

Complementary medicines may also help control your wheezing. Some herbs and supplements may improve wheezing. It is important that you discuss any alternative medicines with your doctor before starting them.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), the following methods or compounds may help alleviate asthma-induced wheezing: (NCCAM).

  • antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E
  • ginkgo biloba
  • meditation
  • yoga

Possible Complications

Because wheezing can be caused by serious underlying conditions, it’s important to tell your doctor when you first begin to wheeze. If you avoid treatment or fail to follow your treatment plan, your wheezing could worsen and cause further complications, such as shortness of breath or an altered mental state.

Since specific complications are dependent on the underlying cause of your wheezing, it is important to follow your treatment plan and get your wheezing under control before it gets worse.

Long-Term Outlook

The outlook for individuals who wheeze depends on the exact cause of their symptoms. Chronic asthma and COPD often require long-term treatment. However, wheezing that is associated with short-term illnesses usually disappears when you get well. It is important to tell your doctor if your wheezing reoccurs or worsens. This often means that you need a more aggressive treatment plan to prevent complications.

Preventing Wheezing

In the case of some chronic illnesses, such as asthma, wheezing can’t be prevented without medical intervention. However, taking your prescribed medications in conjunction with recommended home remedies can improve your symptoms. Don’t discontinue your medications without your doctor’s consent, even if you think that your symptoms are improving. This can lead to dangerous relapses.

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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.

1

Asthma Overview

Learn about asthma. Explore the types of asthma and read information about their symptoms, causes and treatments. Continue reading!

Read more »

2

Anaphylaxis

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

When people with severe allergies are exposed to their allergen, a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis can result: a series of symptoms such as rash, abdominal pain, and difficulty breathing and shock.

Read more »

3

COPD Overview

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is a lung condition usually caused by smoking. It makes breathing difficult, and wheezing, tightness in chest, and chest infections are common.

Read more »

4

Emphysema

Emphysema is a lung disease that, along with chronic bronchitis, represents a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Lack of oxygen may give skin and lips a bluish hue.

Read more »

5

Chronic Bronchitis

People often develop acute bronchitis after a viral chest infection. Blue-colored lips ankle or foot swelling can result.

Read more »

6

Cold and Flu Overview

Overview Colds (common colds) and the flu (influenza) are contagious infections that affect the respiratory system. Both are airborne illnesses, spread through coughing and sneezing. Colds typically are confined to th...

Read more »

7

Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)

Congestive heart failure is a chronic condition that affects the four chambers of the heart. Early symptoms include fatigue and weight gain. Irregular heart beat and wheezing indicate a worsening.

Read more »

8

RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) Infection

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common virus that causes infections of the lungs and airways. Common symptoms include fever, wheezing, and bluish skin from oxygen deprivation.

Read more »

9

Drug Allergy Overview

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A drug allergy is an allergic reaction to a medication. Your immune system identifies the drug as foreign and acts to eliminate it from your body.

Read more »

10

Lung Cancer Overview

Lung cancer is a cancer that originates in the lungs. Lung cancer often goes undetected in the early stages, since symptoms don't usually present themselves until the advanced stages of the disease.

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11

Small Cell Lung Cancer

Your lungs are two sponge-like, air-filled organs located on either side of your chest. When you inhale, your lungs absorb oxygen and send it to the bloodstream for use by your cells. Carbon dioxide, a waste product o...

Read more »

12

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

Cancer occurs when abnormal cells rapidly multiply and don't stop reproducing. The disease can develop anywhere in the body. Treatment is based on its location. When it originates in the lungs, it is lung cancer. Ther...

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13

Pulmonary Edema

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Pulmonary edema is a condition in which the lungs fill with fluid. When this occurs, the body struggles to get enough oxygen. The most common cause of pulmonary edema is congestive heart failure. Heart failure i...

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14

Chemical Burns

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Chemical burns occur when the skin or eyes come into contact with irritants, such as acids or bases (alkaline). Chemicals that come into contact with skin may cause a reaction on the skin or within the body. Chemica...

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15

Bronchiectasis

Bronchiectasis is a condition where the bronchial tubes of your lungs are permanently damaged and enlarged. These damaged air passages allow bacteria and mucus to build up in your lungs, which result in infections an...

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16

Getting a Handle on Aspiration Pneumonia

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Aspiration pneumonia is an inflammation of your lungs and bronchial tubes. It happens after you inhale foreign matter. It is also known as anaerobic pneumonia. This condition is caused by inhaling materials such a...

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17

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is an infection in one or both lungs. The infection may be caused by fungi, bacteria, or viruses. Pneumonia causes inflammation in your lung's air sacs, also referred to as alveoli. The alveoli fill with flui...

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18

Respiratory Acidosis

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

Respiratory acidosis, also called respiratory failure or ventilatory failure, causes the pH of blood and other bodily fluids to decrease, making them too acidic. Respiratory acidosis occurs when the lungs can't remov...

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19

Valley Fever (Coccidioidomycosis)

Coccidioidomycosis-also called valley fever-is a fungal infection that starts in the lungs, and in rare cases spreads to the rest of the body. According to the California Department of Health, approximately 150,00...

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20

Pulmonary Embolism

This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot that affects the lungs. Typically, a blood clot travels from another area in the body before becoming lodged in one of the arteries that supply blood to the lungs. A pulmonar...

Read more »

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.
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