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Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling sound made while you breathe. It’s heard most clearly when you exhale, but in severe cases it can be heard when you inhale. It’s caused by narrowed airways or inflammation.

Wheezing may be a symptom of a serious breathing problem that requires diagnosis and treatment.

Causes of wheezing

Asthma is the most common cause of wheezing. However, there are many other potential causes for wheezing. Before you can stop your wheezing, your doctor must first determine its cause.

Wheezing may also be an indication of:

  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • emphysema
  • gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • heart failure
  • lung cancer
  • sleep apnea
  • vocal cord dysfunction

Wheezing may be triggered by short-term illnesses or health emergencies. These include:

  • anaphylaxis
  • bronchiolitis
  • bronchitis
  • inhaling a foreign object
  • pneumonia
  • reaction to smoking
  • respiratory tract infection

Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency. You should call 911 if you begin to experience dizziness, swollen tongue or throat, or trouble breathing.

Risk factors for wheezing

Wheezing can happen to anyone. However, there are certain risk factors that can increase your chances of developing a wheeze. Hereditary illnesses, such as asthma, can run in families.

Wheezing can also occur in:

  • people with allergies
  • people with cancer
  • children in day care
  • past and current smokers

Controlling risk factors, such as smoking, may help improve wheezing. Avoid triggers, such as pollen and other allergens, if they make you wheeze. Some factors are out of your control, so the goal is to treat your symptoms to improve your overall quality of life.

When to seek medical help

Tell your doctor when you experience wheezing for the first time. Your doctor needs to know if you’re wheezing and having difficulty breathing, if your skin has a bluish tinge, or if your mental state is altered, even if it isn’t your first bout of wheezing.

Seek emergency medical care if you’re wheezing while having difficulty breathing or experiencing hives or a swollen face or throat.

Treatment for wheezing

Treatment for wheezing has two goals. First, inflammation in your airways must be controlled. Prescription anti-inflammatory medications can decrease inflammation and excess mucus in your airways. These typically come in the form of inhalers, but they’re also available as long-acting tablets. Syrups are used for young children.

The second step is to open up your breathing tubes with quick-acting medications. Bronchodilators are often used to treat wheezing and help relieve a cough. They work by relaxing the smooth muscles that encircle your breathing tubes. Your doctor might recommend both anti-inflammatory and quick-acting medications if the wheezing is related to a long-term illness, such as COPD or asthma.

Alternative remedies

Home remedies may help improve wheezing in some people. For example, keeping your home warm and humid can open up your airways and help you breathe more easily. Sitting in a warm, steamy bathroom can sometimes help. Dry, cold climates can worsen wheezing, especially when exercising outdoors.

Complementary medicines may also help control your wheezing. Some herbs and supplements may improve wheezing. It’s important that you discuss any alternative medicines with your doctor before starting them.

These remedies may help alleviate asthma-induced wheezing:

  • antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E
  • ginkgo biloba
  • meditation
  • yoga

Possible complications

Because wheezing can be caused by serious underlying conditions, it’s important to tell your doctor when you first begin to wheeze. If you avoid treatment or fail to follow your treatment plan, your wheezing could worsen and cause further complications, such as shortness of breath or an altered mental state.

Long-term outlook

The outlook for people who wheeze depends on the exact cause of their symptoms. Chronic asthma and COPD often require long-term treatment. However, wheezing that’s associated with short-term illnesses usually disappears when you get well. Make sure to tell your doctor if your wheezing reoccurs or worsens. This often means that you need a more aggressive treatment plan to prevent complications.

Preventing wheezing

In the case of some chronic illnesses, such as asthma, wheezing can’t be prevented without medical intervention. However, taking your prescribed medications along with recommended home remedies can improve your symptoms. Don’t discontinue your medications without your doctor’s consent, even if you think that your symptoms are improving. This can lead to dangerous relapses.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Kristeen Moore
Medically reviewed on: May 09, 2016: University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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