What causes wheezing? 39 possible conditions
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.
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)
- 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)
- inhaling a foreign object
- reaction to smoking
- respiratory tract infection
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
- Asthma and Complementary Health Practices. (2012, March). National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Retrieved July 8, 2012, from http://nccam.nih.gov/health/asthma/facts
- Wheeze Defined. (n.d.). American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. Retrieved July 8, 2012, from http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/conditions-dictionary/wheeze.aspx
- Wheezing. (2010, December 23). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved July 8, 2012, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/wheezing/MY00291
- Wheezing Shouldn’t Be a Prerequisite in Diagnosis of Asthma. (2012, February 27). American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. Retrieved July 8, 2012, from http://www.aaaai.org/global/latest-research-summaries/Current-JACI-Research/wheezing-shouldnt-be-a-prerequisite-in-diagnosis.aspx
See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.
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