What are breath sounds?

Breath sounds come from the lungs when you breathe in and out. These sounds can be heard using a stethoscope or simply when breathing.

Breath sounds can be normal or abnormal. Abnormal breath sounds can indicate a lung problem, such as:

Listening to breath sounds is an important part of diagnosing many different medical conditions.

A normal breath sound is similar to the sound of air. However, abnormal breath sounds may include:

  • rhonchi (a low-pitched breath sound)
  • crackles (a high-pitched breath sound)
  • wheezing (a high-pitched whistling sound caused by narrowing of the bronchial tubes)
  • stridor (a harsh, vibratory sound caused by narrowing of the upper airway)

Your 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.

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

Various factors cause the sounds described above:

  • Rhonchi occur when air tries to pass through bronchial tubes that contain fluid or mucus.
  • Crackles occur if the small air sacs in the lungs fill with fluid and there’s any 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 occurs when the bronchial tubes become inflamed and narrowed.
  • Stridor 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 abnormal breath sounds. Cyanosis involving the lips or the face is also a medical emergency.

Your doctor will also look for the following signs of an emergency:

  • nasal flaring (an enlargement of the opening of the nostrils when breathing that’s usually seen in babies and young children)
  • abdominal breathing (the use of the abdominal muscles to assist breathing)
  • accessory muscle use (the use of the neck and chest wall muscles to assist breathing)
  • stridor (indicating an upper airway obstruction)

Your doctor will review your medical history to determine what’s causing you to have abnormal breath sounds. This includes any current or past medical conditions and any medications you’re taking.

Tell your doctor when you noticed the abnormal 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 what’s causing the abnormal sound. These tests can include:

Your doctor can use a pulmonary function test to measure:

  • how much air you inhale and exhale
  • how efficiently you inhale and exhale

A sputum cultureis a test for detecting foreign organisms in the mucus of the lungs, such as abnormal bacteria or fungi. For this test, your doctor asks you to cough and then collects the sputum you cough up. This sample is then sent to a lab for analysis.

Treatment options for abnormal breath sounds depend on your diagnosis. Your doctor takes the cause and the severity of your symptoms into consideration when recommending a treatment.

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, COPD, or bronchitis, your doctor will probably prescribe breathing treatments to open the airways. People with asthma may be given 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:

  • has breathing difficulty that occurs suddenly
  • has severe breathing difficulty
  • has cyanosis involving the lips or the face
  • stops breathing

Make an appointment with your doctor if you think you’re having other symptoms of breathing issues, such as abnormal breath sounds. Having an open conversation with your doctor helps them to identify any health conditions in the early stages.