Sometimes health conditions or foreign objects in the lungs can cause changes in your breath sounds, such as wheezing or crackles.
Breath sounds come from the lungs when you breathe in and out. A person can hear these sounds using a stethoscope or simply when breathing.
Sometimes, irregular breath sounds might indicate a health issue involving your lungs, such as:
- fluid in the lungs
Listening to breath sounds is an important part of diagnosing many different medical conditions.
A typical breath sound is similar to the sound of air. However, irregular breath sounds
- rhonchi, low pitched breath sounds that are similar to snoring
- crackles, high pitched breath sounds that are similar to popping or snapping
- wheezing, a high pitched whistling sound that occurs due to the narrowing of the bronchial tubes
- stridor, a harsh, vibratory sound that occurs due to the narrowing of the upper airway,
heard most prominentlywhen inhaling
A doctor can use a medical instrument called a stethoscope to hear breath sounds. They can hear the breath sounds by placing the stethoscope on your chest, back, or rib cage, or under your collarbone.
Irregular breath sounds are usually indicators of health issues in the lungs or airways. The most common causes of these breath sounds are:
- COVID-19 infection
- heart failure
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), such as emphysema
- foreign body or
obstructionin the lungs or airways
Various factors cause the sounds described above:
- Rhonchi: These sounds occur when air tries to pass through bronchial tubes that contain fluid or mucus.
- Crackles: These sounds occur if the small air sacs in the lungs fill with fluid and there’s air movement in the sacs, such as when you’re breathing. The air sacs fill with fluid when a person has pneumonia or heart failure.
- Wheezing: This sound occurs when the bronchial tubes become inflamed and narrowed.
- Stridor: This sound occurs when the upper airway 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 atypical breath sounds. Cyanosis involving the lips or the face is also a medical emergency.
A 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 doctors see 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
A doctor will review your medical history to determine the cause of your atypical breath sounds. Your medical history includes any current or past medical conditions and any medications you take.
Tell a doctor when you noticed the atypical breath sounds and what you were doing before you heard them. Be sure to mention any other symptoms you may be experiencing.
The doctor will order one or several tests to determine the cause of the atypical sounds. These tests can include:
A doctor can use a pulmonary function test to measure how much air you inhale and exhale and how efficiently you inhale and exhale.
Treatment options for atypical breath sounds depend on your diagnosis. A doctor considers the cause and severity of your symptoms when recommending a treatment.
Doctors often prescribe medications 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, a doctor will probably prescribe breathing treatments to open the airways.
People with asthma may get a prescription for an inhaler or other medications to use daily. This can prevent asthma attacks and decrease inflammation of the airways.
Call local emergency services or go to the nearest emergency room if someone you know stops breathing or has:
- sudden difficulty breathing
- severe breathing difficulty
- cyanosis involving the lips or the face
You may want to make an appointment with a doctor if you think you’re having other symptoms of breathing issues, such as atypical breath sounds. Having an open conversation with a doctor can help them identify any health conditions in the early stages.