When you breathe in and out, the exchange of air in your lungs produces turbulence called breath sounds. If you listen to your chest with a stethoscope, normal lung sounds should be louder when you breathe in and softer when you breathe out.
Changes in lung sounds can indicate many things. When they’re high-pitched, it can be cause for concern. High-pitched wheezes often mean the airways are smaller in size than normal and air isn’t moving through the lungs as well as it once did. High-pitched breath sounds can also indicate a medical emergency.
High-pitched breath sounds are often classified as wheezing. The sounds made are often described as having a musical or squeaky quality to them. It may sound like a person is whistling when breathing. While high-pitched wheezing most often occurs when breathing out, it can also sometimes occur when breathing in.
Wheezing often indicates that a person’s airways have become narrowed. This can make breathing significantly more difficult and result in short, choppy breaths. It may appear as if the person is working hard to breathe, and they may be flushed and clutching their chest or throat.
Another high-pitched breath sound is called stridor. This occurs when a person has an obstruction in their upper airway or in the neck. Stridor has a sharper, more piercing sound than wheezing does. It mostly occurs when breathing in.
When it’s wheezing
High-pitched breath sounds that are wheezes can occur because of chronic diseases. One of the most common causes of recurring, wheezing high-pitched breath sounds is asthma. Additional causes include:
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD)
- gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)
- heart failure
- lung cancer
- obstructive sleep apnea
Illnesses and injuries
Illnesses and injuries can also lead to more sudden high-pitched breath sounds. These can include:
- respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection
- respiratory tract infection
- injuries due to smoke inhalation
- inhaling a foreign object
When it’s stridor
If high-pitched breath sounds are classified as stridor, causes may include:
- foreign body obstruction
- large airway tumor
- problems with the vocal cords
- narrowing of the upper airway due to injury, trauma, or inflammation
- severely enlarged tonsils or adenoids
Stridor typically indicates a medical emergency because the airway is often obstructed. Seek immediate medical attention if you experience the following symptoms along with high-pitched breath sounds:
- chest pain
- coughing up blood
- gasping for breath
- loss of consciousness
- nasal flaring, where the nostrils move in and out when breathing
- pale skin
- skin that appears blue in color
- excessive sweating
- symptoms that begin after you take a new medication, eat a food you could be allergic to, or are stung by a bee
If your high-pitched breath sounds aren’t interfering with your ability to breathe, you can wait and make an appointment to see your doctor. However, these sounds shouldn’t be ignored as they can indicate asthma, COPD, or other serious conditions. These conditions should all be treated by a doctor.
When you seek treatment for high-pitched breath sounds, your doctor may first measure your pulse oximetry. They’ll put a small, clip-like device on your finger. This measures how much oxygen is in your blood. In healthy adults, your body is being deprived of oxygen if your oxygen reading is less than 90 percent. Low oxygen levels mean your brain, heart, kidneys, and other organs are at risk of damage.
In addition to looking at your physical symptoms, such as how much effort it is for you to breathe, your doctor will also listen to your breath sounds with a stethoscope. Additional tests may include:
- an arterial blood gas analysis, which measures the amount of oxygen in your blood and its pH level
- lung function tests, such as spirometry
- X-ray imaging to view your lungs and airways to determine if there are any blockages, tumors, signs of infection, or fluid buildup in the lungs
- a CT scan of the lungs for a closer look of the lung tissue and blood vessels for tumors, blood clots, and certain lung diseases
- a bronchoscopy, to look directly inside the airways and lung passages
Your doctor may recommend other tests based on the underlying condition they think you may have.
Treatment for high-pitched breath sounds depends on their underlying cause. In an emergency if your airway is in danger of closing up, your doctor may insert a breathing tube down your throat and into your airway. This tube is connected to an artificial breathing machine known as a ventilator.
In some instances, inhaled medications can help to open up the airways, making it easier to breathe. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection if an infection is causing the high-pitched breathing sounds.
If you have high-pitched breath sounds that aren’t an emergency, consider these at-home treatments:
- Avoid cold, dry air and cigarette smoking. Both of these can make it harder for you to breathe.
- Drink plenty of warm fluids. Try some warm water or tea.
- Keep the air around you moist. Moist air can help open up your lungs and make breathing easier. Taking a shower or sitting in the restroom while the shower is running with the door closed can help moisten the air. A humidifier can also release moisture into the air. However, you should make sure to clean it regularly as it’s prone to building up with fungus.