By MaryAnn DePietro, CRT. May 7th 2016

Wheezing is the whistling sound that is heard as a result of narrowing of the airways. It is a common symptom, which can be caused by several medical conditions. Wheezing occurs when the bronchial tubes of the airways become narrow. It is more commonly heard when a person exhales, but can also sometimes be heard on inhalation. Wheezing may occur alone or along with additional respiratory symptoms.

Is Wheezing Serious?

Since wheezing is caused by constricting or narrowing of the airways, it can become serious depending on how severe it is. When an individual wheezes, the amount of air going into her lungs may be reduced. If the constriction or wheezing is severe, there may be a lack of oxygen going to the needed organs of the body. When this occurs, additional symptoms often develop which may include:

  • Shortness of breath: This develops as a person struggles to get enough air into his lungs.
  • Blue lips and fingertips: The lips and the fingertips are often the first body parts that will turn blue due to a lack of oxygen.
  • Confusion: When the body does not get enough oxygen to the brain due to severe wheezing, confusion can develop.

When wheezing is accompanied by any of the above symptoms, it is considered serious. Wheezing can also become more serious in infants since their airways are much smaller than an adult’s airways. Anytime wheezing comes on suddenly or is accompanied by the above symptoms, medical attention is needed.


There are several respiratory conditions that may cause wheezing to develop. The severity and frequency of wheezing can vary greatly. Some common conditions that cause wheezing include the following:

  • Asthma: Wheezing is one of the main symptoms of asthma and can become severe if left untreated.
  • COPD: Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are two different forms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease which can cause wheezing.
  • Allergies: often allergies can cause respiratory symptoms including wheezing.
  • Pneumonia: Both viral and bacterial pneumonia can cause an inflammation and infection in the lungs and lead to narrowing of the airways.

(For more causes of wheezing, read Possible Causes Of Wheezing And Tips For Relief.)


Since wheezing is often due to a narrowing of the airways, medication to open bronchial tubes is often a recommended treatment. Bronchodilators are a type of medication often used to treat wheezing and additional respiratory symptoms. The medication works by relaxing the muscles of the bronchial tubes and allowing them to dilate or open up. As the airways become dilated and more air is able to flow in and out, wheezing will decrease.

There are a few different forms and types of bronchodilators used to treat wheezing including short-acting bronchodilators and long-acting bronchodilators. Bronchodilators are also classified as beta 2-agonists and anticholinergics. Short-acting beta 2-agonists medications are used to treat wheezing immediately and are often called rescue medications. Albuterol is one of the most commonly used short-acting bronchodilators used for wheezing.

Anticholinergic bronchodilators are not used alone as fast-acting medications to treat wheezing, but they may be combined with beta 2-agonists medications. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the combination of both types of bronchodilators may help some people who have frequent wheezing or if wheezing is difficult to control.

Long-acting bronchodilators may also be prescribed for people who often develop wheezing. It is important to understand long-acting bronchodilators are not used to treat sudden symptoms of wheezing; instead they are used to keep the bronchial tubes open and prevent wheezing.

Side effects of bronchodilators can include increased heart rate, nervousness, dry mouth and shakiness. When taken to treat wheezing it is essential to follow a doctor’s recommendation for the medications to be most effective. In addition to taking medication, breathing in moist, warm air from a vaporizer or a shower may help reduce wheezing.

Can You Prevent Wheezing?

There are some things an individual can do to prevent wheezing from developing. People who have a history of asthma or COPD should take medication as prescribed. According to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital, maintenance medications can be used to prevent wheezing from developing in people with asthma.

Since wheezing can also be caused by respiratory infection, taking steps to stay healthy and avoid infections can help. Eating well, getting enough rest, washing hands often and getting an annual flu shot can all reduce the chances of getting a respiratory infection.

Reducing exposure to allergens can also prevent wheezing from occurring. Steps for reducing exposure include avoiding spending time outside when ragweed, mold or pollen counts are high. In addition, using an air filter in the home may help keep the air free of dust and other allergens.

Wheezing can occur occasionally or can be a chronic problem for those who have a history of respiratory conditions. It can be mild or severe enough to make breathing difficult. Controlling wheezing when it first starts is essential to prevent additional and potentially serious symptoms from occurring.


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