Wheezing, associated with difficult breathing, is a high-pitched whine or squeaky sound that comes from deep within your lungs when you inhale and/or exhale.
Wheezing is often associated with difficult or painful breathing. Breathing is supposed to be performed slowly, deeply, effortlessly, and mindlessly. Wheezing is a high-pitched whine, squeak, or rattling sound that comes from deep within your lungs. Wheezing means the lungs are having difficulty inhaling enough oxygen or exhaling waste. It is caused by tightening or restriction of passages that bring air to the base of your lungs. While it may be possible to get over a slight wheeze in relation to a virus or allergy, a severe or chronic wheeze should prompt you to see a doctor, especially if you are a smoker or have known lung disease.
Common accompanying symptoms
If you're experiencing symptoms of wheezing, it's also likely to experience:
Free, private and secure to get you the best way to well. Learn about our technology.
8 Wheezing causes
Most causes of wheezing are diseases of the airways and lungs or diseases of other organs that can lead to lung damage. The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and when and if you should see a physician.
Wheezing may occur due to lung issues such as the following.
- Inflammation: Inflammation of the airways, caused by asthma and other autoimmune conditions, can lead to wheezing symptoms.
- Infection: Infection with viruses or bacteria can cause inflammation of the airways, resulting in a wheeze. Examples include pneumonia, bronchitis, and bronchiolitis.
- Chronic lung disease: Diseases such as COPD (chronic obstructive lung disease, formally known as emphysema) can lead to airway obstruction and wheezing symptoms.
- Congenital: Certain congenital lung diseases may lead to mucus build-up or airway malformation that can cause wheezing symptoms. Examples include cystic fibrosis.
You may have wheezing symptoms due to certain exposures in your environment.
- Allergies: Severe allergic reactions can lead to airway tightening and wheezing.
- Irritants: Exposure to certain chemicals and airborne irritants can cause a wheezing cough.
Bacterial pneumonia is an infection of the lungs caused by one of several different bacteria, often Streptococcus pneumoniae. Pneumonia is often contracted in hospitals or nursing homes.
Symptoms include fatigue, fever, chills, painful and difficult breathing, and cough that brings up mucus. Elderly patients may have low body temperature and confusion.
Pneumonia can be a medical emergency for very young children or those over age 65, as well as anyone with a weakened immune system or a chronic heart or lung condition. Emergency room is only needed for severe cases or for those with immune deficiency.
Diagnosis is made through blood tests and chest x-ray.
With bacterial pneumonia, the treatment is antibiotics. Be sure to finish all the medication, even if you start to feel better. Hospitalization may be necessary for higher-risk cases.
Some types of bacterial pneumonia can be prevented through vaccination. Flu shots help, too, by preventing another illness from taking hold. Keep the immune system healthy through good diet and sleep habits, not smoking, and frequent handwashing.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, cough, headache, loss of appetite, shortness of breath
Symptoms that always occur with bacterial pneumonia: cough
Urgency: In-person visit
Acute bronchitis is an inflammatory reaction to an infection in the airways. Most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by a viral infection, although some cases may be due to a bacterial infection.
Bronchiectasis is destruction and widening of the large airways. Mucus builds up in these airways and can get infected, causing a pneumonia.
Top Symptoms: cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, runny nose, mucous dripping in the back of the throat
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Condition causing abnormal, high-pitched breathing
High-pitched inhaling is called stridor, and requires urgent referral to the ER to see why it's happening
Top Symptoms: high-pitched breathing, severe pelvis pain, arm weakness, loss of vision, chest pain
Urgency: Emergency medical service
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (copd)
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive inflammation of the lungs that makes breathing difficult. It is caused by long-term exposure to irritating gases and/or dust particles, most often cigarette smoke.
Symptoms may take years to develop. They include a chronic cough with mucus (sputum), wheezing, chest tightness, fatigue, constant colds, swollen ankles, and cyanosis (blue tinge to the lips and/or fingernails.) Depression is often a factor due to reduced quality of life.
Treatment is important because there is a greater risk of heart disease and lung cancer in COPD patients. Though the condition cannot be cured, it can be managed to reduce risks and allow good quality of life.
COPD is commonly misdiagnosed and so careful testing is done. Diagnosis is made through patient history; physical examination; lung function tests; blood tests; and chest x-ray or CT scan.
Treatment involves quitting smoking and avoiding exposure to other lung irritants; use of inhalers to ease symptoms; steroids; lung therapies; and getting influenza and pneumonia vaccines as recommended.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, cough and dyspnea related to smoking, cough, shortness of breath, trouble sleeping
Symptoms that always occur with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (copd): cough and dyspnea related to smoking
Symptoms that never occur with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (copd): rectal bleeding
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Asthma attack is also called asthma exacerbation. An attack causes the muscles of the airways to contract, the tissues to swell and produce mucus, and the bronchial tubes in the lungs to become narrow. This makes breathing very difficult.
Asthma is caused by an immune system that is too easily triggered by environmental factors, such as an upper respiratory infection (a cold or the flu;) tobacco smoke; dust; pets; cold air; and stress.
Most susceptible are those with repeated attacks, since the constant inflammation tends to cause further episodes.
Symptoms include wheezing, coughing, severe shortness of breath, chest tightness, chest pain, and inability to speak due to breathlessness.
A severe asthma attack is a life-threatening medical emergency. If the symptoms do not quickly respond to treatment with a fast-acting (rescue) inhaler, take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.
Treatment involves preventing colds, getting flu shots, and working with the medical provider to create a written set of instructions for whenever an attack might break out.
Top Symptoms: shortness of breath, shortness of breath at rest, tight, heavy, squeezing chest pain, wheezing, cough with dry or watery sputum
Symptoms that always occur with asthma attack: shortness of breath
Symptoms that never occur with asthma attack: blue skin
Urgency: In-person visit
Hypersensitivity pneumonitis occurs when something inhaled inflames the lungs. A variety of allergens can cause this immunologic reaction, both natural and synthetic. There are three forms of hypersensitivity pneumonitis acute, subacute, and chronic ...
Wheezing can also result due to the following.
- Structural: Scarring or malformation of the airway can lead to tightening and wheezing.
- Heart disease: People with heart failure may experience episodes of shortness of breath and wheeze due to excessive fluid on the lungs (pulmonary edema).
- Masses: Masses such as goiters, large tonsils, and certain cancers can obstruct the airways and lead to wheezing.
Free, secure, and powered by Buoy advanced AI to get you the best way to better. Learn about our technology.
Wheezing treatments and relief
If your wheezing is associated with difficulty breathing, you should get medical attention right away. If you suffer from chronic wheezing, you should consider seeing a physician to figure out the root cause, especially if you smoke cigarettes.
The following remedies may relieve some of your symptoms.
- Fresh air: Getting some fresh air can help if your wheezing is due to an indoor irritant, such as dust, pet dander, or a fragrance.
- Inhaler: If you are prescribed an inhaler, use it as directed.
- Antihistamines: Antihistamines, like Benadryl (diphenhydramine) can help in the case of an allergic reaction.
After consulting your physician, he or she may recommend the following to address your wheezing symptoms.
- Imaging and blood tests: Chest X-rays and blood work can help determine the cause of wheezing.
- Oxygen: If you are not getting enough oxygen to your blood, you will be given supplemental oxygen to breathe.
- Breathing medication: Medical professionals can provide a number of medications to decrease airway constriction and wheezing.
- Antibiotics: If your wheezing is due to a bacterial infection, you will be given medication to help fight the infection.
- Surgery: Very rarely, surgery may be necessary to help with the symptoms of chronic lung disease or obstructing lesions.
When it is an emergency
You should seek help without delay if you experience the following.
- Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
- Difficulty speaking
- Change in voice pitch
- Face swelling
- Discoloration of fingertips
FAQs about wheezing
Here are some frequently asked questions about wheezing.
Can stress and anxiety cause wheezing?
No, generally, stress and anxiety by themselves do not cause wheezing. Asthma, however, can cause wheezing, and asthma can be caused by stress. Other diseases that may be aggravated by stress can cause wheezing as well, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), often caused by smoking.
Can stress trigger an asthma attack?
Yes, stress can trigger an asthma attack. However, if you have a well-developed asthma plan and have been taking medications, the chance of experiencing an asthma attack is significantly decreased.
Why am I wheezing and coughing at night?
Wheezing and coughing at night (paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea) can be a sign of fluid backup toward the lungs. If this condition is significantly affecting your sleep, it can be a sign of heart failure. You should visit a medical professional for an evaluation. A less serious but important cause is nocturnal asthma.
Why do I wheeze more in cold weather?
Cold weather can cause the blockage of the beta-adrenergic system. Essentially, the cold weather signals your throat to constrict, making it more difficult to breathe. Difficulty breathing in the cold is common and can be treated by dressing warmly or even wearing a scarf over your nose and mouth. Mild forms of asthma may only manifest when irritated, such as by smoke or cold air.
Can wheezing be caused by being overweight?
Yes, wheezing can be caused by being overweight. The extra body mass from being overweight can be difficult to move as the rib cage expands to breathe. Further, any extra body mass around the throat or neck can make for a more narrow opening to the breathing tube (pharynx), and this can cause difficulty breathing and an increase in wheezing.
Questions your doctor may ask about wheezing
- Do you have a cough?
- Any fever today or during the last week?
- Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
- Do you currently smoke?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
- Lechtzin N. Wheezing. Merck Manuals Consumer Version. Revised May 2018. Merck Manual Link
- Asthma & Wheezing in the First Years of Life. National Asthma Council Australia. Published October 2017. National Asthma Council Australia Link
- Chronic Lung Disease. John Muir Health. John Muir Health Link
- About Cystic Fibrosis. Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. CFF Link
- Goiter. American Thyroid Association. ATA Link
- Stress and Anxiety. Asthma UK. Published May 2016. AsthmaUK Link.
- Schachter LM, Salome CM, Peat JK, Woolcock AJ. Obesity is a Risk for Asthma and Wheeze But Not Airway Hyperresponsiveness. Thorax. 2001;56:4-8. BMJ Link
- Wheezing. US National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated August 2018. MedlinePlus Link