What is wheezing?

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Wheezing or bronchoconstriction: Overview

Wheezing is a whistling noise made during breathing. It occurs when the small airways, or bronchial tubes, that lead to your lungs swell or contract (spasm) and become narrow. This narrowing is called bronchoconstriction. When your airways constrict, it is hard for air to pass through and this makes it hard for you to breathe.

Wheezing and bronchoconstriction can be caused by many problems, including:

  • An infection such as the flu or a cold.
  • Allergies such as hay fever.
  • Diseases such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
  • Smoking.

Treatment for your wheezing depends on what is causing the problem. Your wheezing may get better without treatment. But you may need to pay attention to things that cause your wheezing and avoid them. Or you may need medicine to help treat the wheezing and to reduce the swelling or to relieve spasms in your lungs.


Wheezing is a whistling noise of varying pitch and loudness that occurs when the small airways of the lungs become narrower. This can happen because of inflammation or a buildup of mucus and dead cells in the airway. As these small air passages become narrower, wheezing may be heard when the person breathes out. As the passages continue to narrow, wheezing may be heard when the person breathes both in and out.

When a person has severe difficulty breathing, wheezing may no longer be heard because very little air is moving through the narrowed airways.

A doctor may order a chest X-ray or breathing test (spirometry) to determine the cause of a person's wheezing. Some causes of wheezing include bronchitis, allergies, or asthma. Treatment depends on the cause of the wheezing and may include medicines, an inhaler, or a machine to help a person breathe.

How can you care for wheezing or bronchoconstriction?

  • Take your medicine exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine. You will get more details on the specific medicine your doctor prescribes.
  • If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • Breathe moist air from a humidifier, hot shower, or sink filled with hot water. This may help ease your symptoms and make it easier for you to breathe. Follow the directions for cleaning the humidifier.
  • If you have congestion in your nose and throat, drinking plenty of fluids, especially hot fluids, may help relieve your symptoms. If you have kidney, heart, or liver disease and have to limit fluids, talk with your doctor before you increase the amount of fluids you drink.
  • If you have mucus in your airways, it may help to breathe deeply and cough.
  • Do not smoke or allow others to smoke around you. Smoking can make your wheezing worse. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Avoid things that may cause your wheezing. These may include colds, smoke, air pollution, dust, pollen, pets, cockroaches, stress, and cold air.

What is wheezing?

Wheezing is a whistling noise that occurs when the bronchial tubes, which carry air to the lungs, narrow because of inflammation or mucus buildup. Wheezing is often present in asthma.

During an asthma attack, the bronchial tubes become smaller. At first, the person may wheeze when breathing out. As the attack becomes worse, the person may also wheeze when breathing in. During a severe asthma episode, wheezing may go away because little air is moving through the narrowed bronchial tubes.

Wheezing can be a sign of asthma in children, but it does not always mean that a child has asthma. Children younger than 5 often develop wheezing during a respiratory infection. Children with a family history of allergies seem to be more likely than other children to have one or more episodes of wheezing with colds. Children with certain viral infections, such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), rhinovirus (which causes the common cold), and influenza virus, also are likely to develop wheezing.

Wheezing or bronchoconstriction: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have severe trouble breathing.
  • You passed out (lost consciousness).

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You cough up yellow, dark brown, or bloody mucus (sputum).
  • You have new or worse shortness of breath.
  • Your wheezing is not getting better or it gets worse after you start taking your medicine.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You do not get better as expected.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.

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