Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling sound that can happen when you breathe. It’s caused by narrowed airways or inflammation, and is a symptom of a few different medical conditions.

While some of these issues are temporary (like allergies), others can be quite serious and require medical attention.

One of the most common causes of wheezing is asthma, which is when there is a swelling or narrowing of the throat or the airways to your lungs. But wheezing can be caused by a variety of other issues.

Lung issues

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the blanket term for specific lung diseases, including emphysema (which is damaged air sacs in the lungs) and chronic bronchitis (inflammation of the lungs). Most people with COPD are older and are living with it due to smoking.

Wheezing and breathlessness are two symptoms of COPD.

Cystic fibrosis is a disease that affects the exocrine glands and can cause fluid buildup in the lungs. A symptom of this is wheezing.

Bronchitis, which is an infection in the main airways of the lungs, can cause wheezing. Wheezing is also a symptom of pneumonia, an infection in the tissue of the lungs.

Vocal cord issues

Vocal cord dysfunction (VCD), which is often confused for asthma, is a condition in which the vocal cords don’t open correctly. A few symptoms of this issue are:

  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • difficulty breathing


Even if you don’t have asthma, allergies can cause you to feel like you’re short of breath. They can also cause wheezing. The allergy symptoms you experience depend on the type of thing you’re allergic to, such as pollen or pet dander.

Anaphylaxis, which is an acute and serious allergic reaction, may also cause wheezing. Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency. You should call 911 or your local emergency services if you begin to experience anaphylaxis symptoms, such as:

Heart conditions

Heart failure can cause wheezing or a “breathless” feeling. This wheezing is typically caused by fluid buildup in the lungs.

Digestive issues

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which is chronic acid reflux, is often closely associated with asthma. This chronic acid reflux can worsen asthma symptoms by irritating the airways and lungs. People with both asthma and GERD may notice an increase in their wheezing when their GERD flares up.

Lifestyle factors

Smoking can:

  • worsen asthma symptoms
  • increase your risk of developing COPD
  • cause coughing and wheezing

Wheezing can happen to anyone. However, certain risk factors can increase your chances of developing a wheeze. Hereditary illnesses, such as asthma, can run in families.

Wheezing can also occur in:

Avoiding risk factors, such as smoking, may help improve wheezing. You should stay away from triggers that make you wheeze, such as pollen and other allergens, when possible.

Tell your doctor if you’re experiencing wheezing for the first time and can’t seem to find a cause.

Seek emergency medical care instead if your wheezing is accompanied by:

  • difficulty breathing
  • hives
  • swollen face or throat

Because wheezing is almost always a symptom of an underlying condition, treating it usually involves treating the condition.

When it comes to certain lung conditions, prescription anti-inflammatory medications can decrease inflammation and excess mucus in the airways. These medications typically come in the form of inhalers, but they’re also available as liquid medication used via nebulizers.


Asthma cannot be cured, but it can be managed with:

  • quick-relief medications (used at the first sign of symptoms, such as wheezing)
  • controller medications (which work on easing swelling and mucus in airways)
  • biologics (for people with chronic, persistent symptoms)


Typically, bronchitis clears up on its own, but if you develop chronic bronchitis, there are medications that can help. These include bronchodilators and steroids, which work to open the airways. They can be taken either via an inhaler or pills.

Mucolytic medications can help to thin mucus in the lungs so you can cough it up more easily.

In the case of certain chronic health conditions, such as asthma, wheezing can’t usually be prevented without medical help. However, taking your prescribed medications as soon as you start to feel the symptom coming on can help provide quicker relief.

Other ways to lessen wheezing include:

  • avoiding smoking
  • reducing your exposure to allergy or asthma triggers when possible
  • working on managing underlying symptoms

Wheezing is a high-pitched sound that occurs when you breathe. It’s caused by narrowed airways or inflammation in the lungs.

It can be a symptom of a few different issues, from asthma to COPD to heart conditions. Treating wheezing usually involves treating the underlying condition, sometimes with inhaled medications, tablets, or even injections. When treated properly and promptly, most bouts of wheezing can be quickly managed.

If you start to experience chest tightness, difficulty breathing, and wheezing and you aren’t sure why, it’s important to get medical help immediately.

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