Your breathing can tell your healthcare team more about your chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Lung sounds can provide clues about the state of your airways and whether your treatment is working.
COPD refers to a group of progressive lung diseases that make it harder for you to breathe.
Keep reading to understand more about what your healthcare team is listening for when it comes to lung sounds when you’re living with COPD.
Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling sound. If a healthcare professional hears wheezes in only one area, it may be due to a blockage.
With COPD, however, wheezes are more likely to be heard throughout your lungs and airways.
The inflammation that comes with COPD can affect both your large and small airways by causing them to narrow. A wheezing sound is the vibration of air through these narrowed airways.
This wheezing sound can sometimes be heard when you breathe in. In most cases, though, it’s louder when you’re breathing out.
Crackles, previously called rales, refer to a noise that’s:
A healthcare professional can listen to this sound using a stethoscope, and it’s most likely to be heard when you breathe in.
Crackling is the sound that’s made when small air bubbles pass through fluid. This can indicate a buildup of mucous or pus in your airways. Coughing will temporarily dislodge the fluid, and the crackles go away.
There are three different types of crackles:
- Fine crackles. These are high-pitched, quick sounds. They can indicate fluid in small airways. Fine crackles are often heard in pneumonia and congestive heart failure.
- Coarse crackles. These are a deeper, longer sound compared with fine crackles. They occur when air bubbles are passing through fluid in larger airways. Coarse crackles are more likely to occur in people with COPD.
- Biphasic crackles. Biphasic crackles are a combination of both fine and coarse crackles.
Stridor is similar to wheezing, but the sound is typically louder than a wheeze. It can be identified when you breathe in or out — or both — and can identify upper airway blockages or narrowing.
If stridor is heard when you breathe in, it means there’s a narrowing or blockage above your voice box, called the larynx.
If the sound is heard when you breathe out, it means there’s a narrowing in your trachea, or windpipe. The trachea is the tube that connects your throat to your lungs.
A rhonchus is a continuous sound that may be heard in the lungs. It’s a lower-pitched sound than a wheeze. Through a stethoscope, it sounds similar to snoring.
This can indicate a buildup of fluid in the larger airways. In COPD, rhonchi can mean an increase in fluids is being secreted by the airways.
Hamman’s sign is a crackling or crunching sound that occurs at the same time as your heartbeat. It happens when air gets trapped in the space between your lungs, called the mediastinum.
Air doesn’t typically leak into this area. If your doctor detects Hamman’s sign, it means there’s been damage to your lungs or windpipe, which is causing air to escape.
A whooping sound can happen with coughing when a person is gasping for air. It’s the high-pitched sound of air rushing into your airways.
This sound is often heard in pertussis, also known as whooping cough. Pertussis is caused by a bacteria.
People with COPD are at greater risk of contracting pertussis. Pertussis can cause COPD symptoms to flare.
Many people are successfully protected from pertussis with vaccination. Talk with your doctor to make sure your immunizations are up to date.
Your lungs and lung cavity are covered by thin membranes called pleurae. Typically, they slide smoothly over each other to regulate breathing.
A pleural friction rub is a quick, explosive sound. It can be heard when you breathe in or out. It’s a sign that something is interrupting the membranes.
In COPD, this sound is often due to inflammation.
A healthcare professional can hear lung sounds with a stethoscope. Some can be detected even without a stethoscope.
To investigate further, your healthcare team might call for the following tests:
- Spirometry. This test measures most of your lung volumes and flow of air out of the lungs. You’ll breathe into a small device called a spirometer. It’s easy to do and can be performed in your doctor’s office or even at the bedside in a hospital room
- Laryngoscopy. This test uses a small scope to explore your throat and voice box (larynx).
- Bronchoscopy. This is a similar test to the laryngoscopy but it explores deeper into your lungs. It can provide imagining or a sample to find out more.
- Chest X-ray. An X-ray uses a form of radiation to get a picture of your lungs. It can check for damage to the small air sacs in your lungs. This is a way of diagnosing emphysema, part of COPD.
- CT scan. A CT scan is another way to get an image of your lungs and airways. It provides more details than an X-ray.
Treatments are available to manage the signs and symptoms of COPD. These include:
- Cutting down or quitting smoking, if you smoke. This is the number one thing you can do to improve your lung health. It’s not an easy task but medication and psychological support can help.
- Inhalers. Medications to help open your airways and make breathing easier can be given in inhaler form. These medications may be short or long acting, providing quick relief or helping to prevent symptoms.
- Nebulizers. For people who are unable to use an inhaler, a nebulizer turns medication into a fine mist. You then wear a mask or mouthpiece to breathe in the medication.
- Corticosteroids. You take these medications orally or through an inhaler. They may be used to manage a COPD flare.
- Phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors. These medications are taken orally. They can help to bring down inflammation in the lungs and reduce COPD flares.
- Mucolytics. COPD can cause excess mucus in your lungs. These medications can help thin out that mucus, making it easier to breathe.
- Supplemental oxygen. It can be hard to get enough oxygen from the air if your lungs aren’t working optimally. Supplemental oxygen is delivered using nose prongs or a mask. It can increase the amount of oxygen available to your lungs and your body.
Listening to your lungs and airways can provide your doctor with a lot of information about what’s going on inside your body.
Certain sounds can indicate narrowing in your airways or fluid buildup. Your healthcare team may require further testing to find out more.