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Wheezing – causes, diagnosis and treatment

Wheezing can be recognised through a whistling sound while breathing, especially while exhaling, making it difficult to breathe.  This is usually because of a narrowing in the lung’s airways. Almost always, wheezing is an outcome of asthma, but there are a number of other conditions that causes it. Any other health condition that results in a contraction of the airways can lead to wheezing, followed by coughing and breathlessness. Some of the conditions that make it worse are:

  • Airway inflammation

  • Muscles tightening around the bronchial tubes

  • Airway blockage

  • Allergy reaction

  • Medication

  • Inhaling an irritant substance

  • Inability to clear mucus

  • A tumour in the airway

  • Respiratory tract infection

  • Asthma

  • Pain in the chest

  • COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)

  • GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease)

  • Heart problems or failure

  • Lung cancer

  • Fluid building up in the lungs

  • Sleep apnoea where breathing stops and resumes during sleep

  • Pneumonia

  • Smoking

Some of these causes are life-threatening and cause other health serious complications. 

In infants wheezing can be due to mucous or milk stuck in the throat, swelling in the throat tissues caused by a virus, the common cold, an allergy or croup. If there is a family history of respiratory disease, there are chances of chronic inflammation. Medications are administered through a nebulizer to speed up the relief.

Treatment options

Wheezing is quite common in very young children. It is best to get in touch with an asthma specialist if you experience it for the first time. The most significant symptoms are shortness of breath and a change in the colour of the skin.  If it is severe, it might be necessary to rush to emergency care at the nearest hospital particularly if breathing becomes difficult accompanied by hives or swelling on the face or neck.

While at the doctor’s, a thorough investigation is carried out to find out more about the symptoms and triggers to the problem. It is possible to experience the symptoms without any history of respiratory disease as it can also happen after consuming a particular food, when it is likely to be diagnosed as a food allergy. During a first time consultation, the doctor may prescribe a test called “spirometry” and chest X-ray along with blood tests. If allergy is the cause, allergy tests may be conducted.

Wheezing caused by asthma is treated by attempting to reduce the swelling in the airways. This may be in the form of a:

  • Bronchodilator inhaler for quick relief

  • Corticosteroid inhaler

  • Long term bronchodilator

  • Oral medication to reduce inflammation in the airways

  • Prescription Antihistamines as pills or nasal sprays  to tackle nasal allergies

  • Antibiotics if there is a bacterial infection

To relieve wheezing, asthma specialists recommend breathing moist air through a vaporizer or sitting in the ambience of a steamy shower.   If prescription medication and respiratory inhalers are part of the treatment, these must be followed diligently. Maintaining a dust-free environment also helps minimise the onset of wheezing.

It is important to get treatment for wheezing as soon as the symptoms are noticed to avoid the potential complications it can cause. Any difficulty in breathing must receive immediate attention.