What is a wheeze?

A wheeze describes an extra sound - often a reedy 'whistling' type sound - that occurs while breathing. The medical name for wheezing is 'sibilant ronchi', although other terms may be used, depending on the exact nature of the wheezing sound. Wheezing normally occurs while exhaling, but can occur when inhaling as well, where it is severe.

What causes wheezing?

Wheezing occurs when your airways are either narrowed or are inflamed. There are a large number of conditions that can cause this, however in the vast majority of cases wheezing is caused by asthma. Other conditions which cause wheezing include...

  • Allergies
  • Anaphylaxis - a severe allergic reaction (this is a medical emergency and you must seek immediate medical attention)
  • Bronchiolitis - a chest infection common in babies up to 1 year of age, especially those under 6 months old
  • Bronchitis - inflammation of the large airways in the lungs
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) - this is an umbrella term for emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic asthma. In both chronic bronchitis and asthma wheeze is a common feature.
  • Foreign objects - if a foreign object becomes lodged in the airways
  • Heart Failure - a condition where the heart is not pumping well
  • Lung Cancer
  • Respiratory Tract Infections causing acute bronchitis

Cigarette smokers are particularly prone to wheezing, as non-smokers can be if they inhale cigarette smoke.

When should I see the doctor if I have a wheeze?

If wheezing occurs alongside difficulty breathing and any sudden onset swelling of the face, the throat or the tongue, you may be experiencing anaphylaxis and you should seek urgent medical attention.

If this is your first bout of wheezing you should see your doctor, especially if other symptom appear at the same times, such as a blue tinge to your skin colour (cyanosis) or any sense of an altered mental state. Cyanosis may indicate a serious underlying condition for which you should also seek urgent medical attention.

What treatments are available for wheezing?

Treatment depends entirely on what is causing the wheezing, however a very common factor is inflammation of the airways, and this can be treated with anti inflammatory medication, which can be either in tablet/syrup form or breathed in using an inhaler.

Another type of medication, called 'bronchodilators', are fast acting and are used to open up the airways. Your doctor may recommend either or both of these treatments. There are also a range of complementary remedies available for wheezing, although you should consult your doctor before taking any of these.