Get with the Flow: Wheezing and Airway Problems
Whistling a tune may be associated with being happy or worry free, but whistling sounds that happen when you breathe are another matter. Audible whistling and wheezing noises from normal respiration can be annoying, and may signal worrying health conditions.
What Causes Wheezing in the Throat?
Wheezing can occur as a result of many different causes such as bacterial infections, foreign objects getting lodged in your throat, exposure to allergens, or even asthma attacks. Common causes of wheezing also involve respiratory infections or damage to the lungs and other respiratory tissue that results in chronic bronchitis.
At its simplest level, wheezing, whistling, and other noises associated with breathing are caused by constrictions in your airways. These constrictions can be the result of buildup of mucus or phlegm in your sinuses in the case of an upper respiratory infection, or can be caused by mucosal buildup in bronchial tubes as a result of bronchitis or other lower respiratory infection. Wheezing noises may arise from inflammation, either from an immune system response to infection or allergens, or as a result of chronic respiratory conditions.
It is even possible that being overweight can cause your breathing to become labored and noisy. Extra body fat stored around the face, neck, and upper chest can put pressure on your airways, causing you to wheeze when you breathe. One of the most prominent ways this pressure manifests is in sleep apnea, a condition where your breathing can become labored or even stop entirely while you sleep. The vast majority of cases of serious sleep apnea occur in people who have a high body mass index.
Wheezing can happen throughout your life. Babies and small children can be prone to noises while breathing due to very small airways and the frequency with which they encounter various infections. As we age, many different forms of trouble breathing can cause whistling sounds.
For older people, acute bronchitis, chronic problems with the bronchial tubes, or serious diseases such as COVID-19 or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can lead to wheezing. As noted above, being overweight can also contribute to increases in respiratory noises. Since many of us tend to gain more weight as life progresses, this can be an increasing risk factor as we grow older.
How Do You Stop Wheezing Quickly?
The fastest way to stop wheezing is to clearly and accurately diagnose the underlying cause of your respiratory problem. Getting to the bottom of what is causing your breathing problems will help speed up treatment. For simple infections like the common cold, this may mean taking over-the-counter drugs such as antihistamines to help with congestion and phlegm. For more serious lung diseases you may need bronchodilators or corticosteroids to open up your airways. If sudden asthma symptoms are the reason you have trouble breathing, using a steroid inhaler can provide fast relief.
For many causes of wheezing, taking steps to clear and relax your airways can help while providing quick relief. For many kinds of illness or infection, things like taking a hot shower or drinking hot tea can allow hot, damp air into your upper airways, which often relaxes and opens respiratory tissue. Taking over-the-counter antihistamines and other drugs can also provide some relief for infection-related respiratory constriction.
Common Causes of Wheezing
Wheezing and whistling noises can be caused by a wide variety of problems with your respiratory system. Some issues arise because of temporary illnesses and other issues can be chronic. There are causes that are ultimately harmless and others that could be genuinely life-threatening. Below is a list of some common causes of respiratory noises, but this is by no means an exhaustive list.
- seasonal allergies
- cystic fibrosis
- obstruction caused by a foreign object in an airway
- congestive heart failure
- smoking or breathing in second-hand smoke
- respiratory syncytial virus
- gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- lung cancer
- vocal cord problems
- sleep apnea
How to Treat Wheezing at Home
Many of the causes of wheezing can be eased by applying some simple home remedies. There are limits to the effectiveness of home treatments if you are suffering from bacterial infections or serious difficulty breathing caused by a heart attack or COPD. In these cases, you will need the help of healthcare professionals who can provide the treatment you need.
To stop wheezing, you need to do everything you can to open up and relax your respiratory system. Taking a hot shower can be one way to start relaxing your lungs. Similarly, drinking hot beverages such as herbal teas, hot water, or other warm liquids can have the same effect of opening up your airways.
Not every form of wheezing is going to be solved by taking a steamy shower every now and again. If you live in a dry climate, or find that you start to wheeze in the winter when the air is dryer, you should consider installing a humidifier to help moisten the air in your home.
Doing what you can to clean the air in your home and work environments will also help you breath more easily. This involves avoiding cigarette smoke, dust, mold, and other potential allergens. Even if your body does not produce large amounts of phlegm reacting to pollutants in your environment, these irritants can still cause inflammation in your bronchial tube and other respiratory tissue.
Over the long term, breathing exercises and steps to improving general wellness can have positive impacts on your ability to breathe clearly. Maintaining a healthy body weight, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and avoiding stress can help improve immune system function, which in turn lowers your risk of many conditions associated with wheezing.
Should You See Your Doctor About Wheezing?
Though many causes of wheezing are not dangerous and can be treated with home remedies or working to clean and moisten the air you breathe, there are some conditions that require medical intervention. Unless it has been confirmed that your wheezing is caused by a short-term illness, it is important to get checked out by a doctor to see what is going on. Not only can difficulty breathing indicate serious medical conditions, but long-term difficulty breathing and pulmonary inflammation have also been linked to heart disease. Some conditions such as lung cancer, COPD, or emphysema do not get better over time. Beginning treatment early for these kinds of conditions can make all the difference in your health and possibly even save your life.
The answer to whether you should seek medical attention for breathing troubles is, “it depends.” Sudden trouble breathing that comes after a bee sting, taking medication, or after you eat food containing potential allergens could mean you are suffering from anaphylaxis, which can potentially be fatal and needs to be treated right away. This run-away reaction is an overreaction by your immune system to a foreign substance you have come in contact with. Anaphylaxis can result in sudden, extreme inflammation in pulmonary tissue. In mild cases this can make breathing difficult, but in severe instances your airway might close completely, making it impossible to breathe.
With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, there is more reason to pay attention to your breathing. The most severe symptoms of COVID-19 are typically preceded by cold or flu-like symptoms, but the severity of your symptoms could increase rapidly with little warning. If you have tested positive for the coronavirus, it is important that you maintain close contact with your healthcare provider. Even if your symptoms seem to be relatively mild, you should pay close attention to your breathing. If you suddenly find that you are experiencing shallow, rapid breathing or your skin, particularly around the face or lips, begins turning blue, seek medical attention immediately.
Ultimately, wheezing is a symptom of other conditions, and the level of concern you should maintain should be based on the underlying cause of your respiratory issues. For temporary cases associated with non-COVID illnesses, there may be less cause for concern. If your wheezing does not have an obvious cause, or it has been going on for a long time, it is wise to get your condition checked out to see what is causing your difficulty breathing.
The more concerning cases of wheezing are the ones that seem to begin suddenly or without an obvious trigger. In these cases, treatment from a medical professional when you need it is of the utmost importance. This is why our many clinic locations are open every day of the week to get you the care you need. We have even opened specific COVID-19 testing clinics just to meet the ongoing demand for testing during these unique times.