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Wheezing is an uncomfortable respiratory symptom with many possible causes. Described as a jagged, high-pitched whistling sound, wheezing makes it hard to take a deep breath, which can create anxiety that makes the situation worse. Though it can be frightening, there is usually a simple explanation for wheezing.

Allergies

Pet dander, pollen, and even certain insects can trigger allergy-induced wheezing. When these particles are carried around by the wind, they can settle in the nose and mouth. When the body detects them, it sends out histamines to combat the allergens. This process increases inflammation in the bronchial tubes, which induces shortness of breath and wheezing along with coughing and sneezing.

allergies coughing wheezing histamines frantic00 / Getty Images

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Bronchiolitis

Bronchiolitis is a viral lung infection in children that causes congestion of the small airways or bronchioles. At first, it causes stuffiness or a runny nose, just like a cold. Over the course of seven or more days, symptoms emerge that require medical care. These include an inability to eat and drink due to deeply labored breathing and audible wheezing during exhalation.

bronchiolitis viral infection children decade3d / Getty Images

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Pregnancy

Fluctuating hormones can cause inflammation in the sinuses and lungs in pregnant women with asthma. Studies show that hormonal changes can disturb the airways and cause an inflammatory response in the lungs. But when they are more erratic, as it happens during pregnancy, the lungs' ability to oxygenate is negatively affected, leading to shortness of breath and wheezing.

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Gastroesophageal reflux disease

Gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD causes or exacerbates breathing problems. When acid backs up into the esophagus, this leads to irritation, pain, coughing, and wheezing. In those with asthma, researchers believe that the acid creates bronchial hypersensitivity to stimuli and breathing difficulties because it triggers the vagus nerve.

GERD asthma vagus nerve juststock / Getty Images

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Obstructive sleep apnea

People with obstructive sleep apnea tend to have more gastroesophageal acid reflux than average, leading to chronic inflammation of the soft palate. This causes edema in the uvula, the teardrop-shaped tissue at the back of the throat, increasing mucus production. Research also found individuals with obstructive apnea had excess mucus, generating wetter coughs and wheezing.

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Emphysema

Emphysema is a disease that is often associated with smoking but can happen to anyone who inhales irritants, such as chemicals or pollution. The alveoli — air sacs that oxygenate the lungs — are weakened and broken in people with emphysema. The lungs stiffen, and the bronchioles narrow, making it hard to breathe during the most mundane activities. This can lead to persistent wheezing.

emphysema alveoli bronchioles narrow Ed Reschke / Getty Images

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Cardiac asthma

Unlike regular asthma, which is a chronic condition that narrows airways, cardiac asthma is a symptom of heart failure. The coughing and wheezing develops due to fluid in the lungs, a condition called pulmonary edema, which also causes shortness of breath. Cardiac asthma requires immediate medical attention, and using traditional asthma medications to treat it worsens the condition.

cardiac asthma pulmonary edema PeopleImages / Getty Images

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Cyanosis complication

Cyanosis is the bluish coloration of the fingers, lips, feet and skin. A lack of oxygenated blood to or from the heart causes it, and immediate medical intervention is required. In addition to wheezing, individuals with cyanosis may experience crepitation, a distinctive crackling or clicking sound when inhaling, and may lose consciousness.

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Treatment

After confirming the diagnosis with an X-ray, blood, and lung function tests, the treatment course for wheezing is dictated by the underlying illness. The doctor must solve two fundamental problems: inflammation in the airway and breathing difficulty. Prescription bronchodilators provide relief by calming inflammation reopening the airways, while corticosteroids reduce excess mucus.

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Natural Remedies

Often, people who experience wheezing frequently experiment with home remedies. Ginger is a staple in traditional medicines and has a wealth of research behind it. Its active ingredient, gingerol, relaxes muscles in the airway within a couple minutes of ingestion. There is also evidence that people who regularly consume fruits, vegetables, and omega fatty acids have lower instances of asthma-related inflammation. Vitamins C and E are particularly good at helping the body deal with the effects of allergies and oxidative stress.

11. Respiratory infections

Respiratory infections, ranging from the common cold to more severe conditions like pneumonia, can lead to wheezing as the airways become inflamed and narrowed. These infections can be viral, bacterial, or even fungal, affecting both the upper and lower respiratory tracts. Symptoms accompanying wheezing often include coughing, fever, and a general feeling of malaise. Early intervention with appropriate medications can help manage symptoms and prevent complications, highlighting the importance of recognizing and treating respiratory infections promptly.

composite image of highlighted red injured lungs / internal organ disease

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Foreign object inhalation

In children especially, wheezing can be a sign of a foreign object being inhaled into the lungs. Small toys, food particles, and other objects can accidentally become lodged in the airways, leading to partial blockage and the characteristic high-pitched sound of wheezing. This situation requires immediate medical attention to remove the object and restore normal breathing. Parents and caregivers should be vigilant about small objects and foods that pose a choking risk to prevent such emergencies.

xray of a kid who swallowed a lego and it is now in their lungs

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Bronchiectasis

Bronchiectasis is a chronic condition characterized by the permanent enlargement of parts of the airways in the lung. This leads to the accumulation of excess mucus, which can block the airways and cause wheezing, along with chronic coughing and frequent infections. The damage to the airways is often the result of an underlying condition like pneumonia, immune system problems, measles, tuberculosis, and the genetic disorder cystic fibrosis. The disease often causes lung infections. Managing bronchiectasis typically involves a combination of therapies aimed at clearing mucus, preventing infections, and improving overall lung function to alleviate symptoms like wheezing.

Asian women have symptoms of burning sensation on a gray background. Bronchitis and pneumonia of women

Wheezing can be stopped through various treatments offered by pulmonologists. Healthcare providers inquire about the symptoms shown by individuals and diagnose wheezing by listening to the breathing sounds in the chest. They can also conduct other tests like chest X-rays, depending on the suspected issues. It's crucial to identify respiratory issues and seek early treatment to prevent complications and manage wheezing symptoms effectively.


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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.