Wheezing: A-to-Z Guide from Diagnosis to Treatment to Prevention

Wheezing

Wheezing

Introduction to wheezing:

Our airways are designed to be responsive to harmful substances in the air. If we walk through clouds of smoke, our airways will shrink, protecting our delicate lung tissues from the noxious ingredients in the smoke. They should return to normal when we begin to breathe fresh air.

Some people – those with asthma – have an exaggerated tightening response.

What is wheezing?

Wheezing is the noise made by air moving through tight airways in the chest. Classically, wheezing is heard when children are breathing out, and these tiny airways collapse.

Wheezing does not necessarily mean asthma – and vice versa.

Wheezing can progress to respiratory distress.

Who gets wheezing?

Wheezing is the classic symptom of asthma, but it is also an important feature of other problems such as inhaled foreign bodies, RSV infections, other types of bronchiolitis, or cystic fibrosis. Wheezing might be a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux or of a food allergy. It can also be present during many common viral infections, especially during the first two years of life.

Not all children with asthma wheeze. Some cough instead, as a way to move air through the narrowed airways.

What are the symptoms of wheezing?

Tight, noisy breathing during expiration.

Is wheezing contagious?

No – although the causes of wheezing may be contagious.

How long does wheezing last?

Wheezing lasts as long as the airways are too tight. The duration depends on the underlying cause.

How is wheezing diagnosed?

The cause of wheezing should be carefully considered. Inhaled foreign objects should always be suspected – especially with the first episode of wheezing. They are most common at the age when the child is unlikely to be able to describe what happened.

Reflux should also be considered as a possible cause, as should other sources of airway obstruction.

Wheezing and asthma are so linked in many people’s minds that other causes are often missed.

How is wheezing treated?

Wheezing is treated by reversing the tightness of the small airways of the chest. This might be done with bronchodilator medicines to relax the smooth muscles around the airways. It might be done with anti-inflammatory medicines to reduce swelling within the airways. Or it might be done by removing an inhaled object.

How can wheezing be prevented?

Wheezing can often be prevented by taking steps to prevent the individual underlying causes. See separate articles

Related A-to-Z Information:

Adenovirus, Asthma, Bronchiolitis,Common Cold, Cough, Cystic Fibrosis, Food Allergies, Gastroesophageal Reflux, Peanut Allergy, Pneumonia, RSV (Respiratory syncytial virus)

Reviewed by: Khanh-Van Le-Bucklin, Liat Simkhay Snyder
Last reviewed: January 07, 2014
Dr. Alan Greene

Article written by

Dr. Greene is the founder of DrGreene.com (cited by the AMA as “the pioneer physician Web site”), a practicing pediatrician, father of four, & author of Raising Baby Green & Feeding Baby Green. He appears frequently in the media including such venues as the The New York Times, the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, & the Dr. Oz Show.