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Wheezing: Causes, symptoms and treatment

What is wheezing?

Wheezing is a whistling sound that can be made while breathing that may be a symptom of an illness or other causes or conditions.

If wheezing is accompanied with difficulty breathing, this may be a medical emergency.

Wheezing may be a symptom of hayfever, COPD, asthma, acute bronchitis, bronchospasm, swelling in the airways, mucus in the airways, something stuck in the throat, or a growth in the airway.

Less commonly, wheezing may also be caused by these health problems:

What are the symptoms of wheezing?

The symptoms of wheezing include a musical or whistling sound and laboured breathing, particularly when exhaling, and sometimes accompanied by a feeling of tightening in the chest. You can hear wheezing more loudly if you plug your ears and exhale rapidly, or by using a stethoscope held at the neck or over the lungs. On the other hand, stridor is a wheezing sound heard during inhalation, and usually caused by narrowing of the windpipe or vocal cords (in the neck).

How can I tell whether my child is wheezing or just stuffed up?

Many pre-schoolers may experience wheeze.

Many of them turn out to be what's called “transient early wheezers” and the symptoms settle down by around 3 years old.

However wheeze in early childhood may also predict asthma in later life.

If a child is wheezing, and there are no obvious causes, such as a cold, seek medical advice.

Seek medical advice about wheezing if:

  • Wheezing is accompanied by a temperature of 38C (101F) or above. You may have a respiratory infection such as acute bronchitis, or pneumonia.
  • Breathing is so difficult that you feel you are suffocating. This can be a sign of a severe asthma episode or an allergic reaction ( anaphylaxis) - call 999 to get emergency medical help immediately.
  • You wheeze frequently and cough up greenish or grey phlegm. You may have chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or COPD.
  • You begin wheezing suddenly and cough up frothy pink or white phlegm. This may be a sign of heart failure - get emergency medical help immediately.
  • You cough up bloody phlegm, feel breathless or you have a sharp, localised chest pain; this could be a sign of pulmonary embolism – get emergency medical help immediately.

How do I find out what's causing my wheezing?

To determine the cause of your wheezing, your doctor will ask you questions to determine your symptoms and what leads to them. For example, if you have no history of lung disease and you always wheeze after eating a certain food or at a certain time of year, your doctor may suspect that you have a food or respiratory allergy.

Your doctor will listen to your lungs with a stethoscope to hear where the wheezing is and how much wheezing you have.

If this is the first time you've been evaluated, your doctor will probably ask you to perform a breathing test (spirometry) and may also arrange a chest X-ray.

Other blood tests and procedures may be necessary depending on what your doctor learns from talking with you and examining you.

If it seems like you have allergies that may be related to your wheezing, there are a variety of other tests your doctor may use to verify allergies, including skin testing or blood tests (an eosinophil count or IgE levels).

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