What does “wheezing” mean, and what causes it?

December 4, 2011  |  General

I generally put up a variant of this post every year or so because the traffic analysis of this blog tells me that wheezing — what causes it and what we do about it — is one of the most common search terms that bring people here. It’s a common problem, and I’ve written some about it before. The fact that so many people are searching for information about it tells me that doctors may not be doing a great job in explaining what it is. This post will tell you what a doctor means by the word.

“Wheezing” is one of those words which, when commonly used by non-physicians means one thing (noisy breathing), but which means something else when doctors use it. So, when a doctor tells you your child is wheezing, what is she telling you? To understand that you need to know a little about the anatomy of the lungs.

The lungs are made up of two main components: tiny air sacs (called aveoli), where the business of getting oxygen into the blood stream happens, and the pipes that conduct the air down to the air sacs. This system of pipes begins with the largest of them – the windpipe (called the trachea) – in the throat. It ends with the tiniest of them – called the bronchioles – which are just before the air sacs. Think of the system as an immense tree: the trunk, branches, and twigs are the pipes, and the leaves are the air sacs. Here is a picture.

Wheezing is the noise that happens when the small airways have something blocking them. The blockage most commonly comes from constriction of the airways, but sometimes it may be from debris, such as mucus, obstructing the passage. The sound of air flowing past these choke points in the small airways makes a whistling sound – that is a wheeze. Most of the time it is a sound heard when a child breathes out, not in, because it’s more difficult to get air out than in so that’s when the problem is obvious.

We can hear wheezes with a stethoscope, but sometimes they are so obvious we don’t need one. A more subtle sign of wheezing is when a child takes more time to get air out with each breath than he does to breathe air in.

How do we treat wheezing? Since the most common cause is constriction of the small airways, we typically give inhaled medications to reverse the constriction.

Bottom line: when a doctor uses the word wheeze, we aren’t just describing noisy breathing. We mean a specific thing that has a specific treatment.


  1. I was in an auto accident 12-21-2003 lately i,ve been wheezing. I went to an ear nose and throat specialist. He ordered an x-ray before i could get in house and get setteled his office called me and said you a ct scan the x-ray showed a mass on your lung. The next day I went for the CT Scan. The Doc didn’t call me back I had an appointment eight days later. He greeted me with you dont have cancer its just scar tissue from your accident. He didn’t give me anything for wheezing and he would see me in two months.I
    facial scaring and facial spams. he ijects botox for the spams for my muscles.last time I got imjectons he didn’t do my vocal chords. The wheezing is getting on my one nerve.

  2. I started wheezing a month ago.last mont it was 4 few days.then a later went to the clinic and was given medicine.the doctor said I have asthma which is hard for me to believe because non of my family has and I don’t use to have.pls enlighten me

  3. Many people with asthma don’t have a family history of the disorder. You can read more about asthma in this post.

  4. Once i was in tention and i had a lot of burden thn suddenly i feel breathing hardly my dr said this is anxity due to the tention and i also have a old flu now a days m suffring from h pylori dr gives me the tabletss on one tablet tht mentioned Do not take inderral if u havee a history of asthma or wheezing” do i take these or not bcs i had 2 or 3 tyms breathing problem is this called asthma ?

  5. Hi:

    Sorry, but I can’t give specific medical advice over the internet because you’re not my patient. Also, I’m a pediatrician and don’t care for adults. If you have continued breathing troubles I suggest you seen you doctor.

  6. my daughter ,when she is sleeping a whizlind sound producing sir reason and remedy please

  7. Hi:

    Thanks for stopping by, but I can’t provide specific medical information for a particular patient over the internet because I’m not your child’s doctor. I can tell you that, in general, sounds like that often come from the upper airway and not from down in the lungs. But if you are concerned about it you should bring her to the doctor for an evaluation.

    I hope this helps you

  8. Hello I have a 8 month old he was sick at first I took him to the doctor because of the cold and he lasted about a month with the cold I took him twice to the doctor and twice to the hospital the cold won’t go away and I’m worried because he started with that whizzing in his chest what can I do so it can take of

  9. Hi Evelyn:

    I’m sorry that I can’t give specific medical advice over the internet because I’m not your child’s doctor. I can say that frequent wheezing with viral infections, such as colds, is common in toddlers. Since on average they get several colds in succession during the course of the winter it may appear that it’s all one illness, rather then several in a row. There are things we can do about that, but you would need to see your doctor for specific advice. The problem does generally get better as the child gets older and beyond the toddler age group.

  10. I found your site looking up information on wheezing (like everyone else it seems). I realize you’re not my child’s doctor and can’t give specific medical advice on her case, but I’m really not sure if I’m overreacting or not! A bit of back history: my daughter had meconium aspiration at birth and had troubling breathing as an infant. She was on albuterol through her nebulizer for about 8-10 months and has seemed to have no trouble breathing when playing normally with me (we mostly just read or draw). We found black mold in our house and I asked my husband if she had been having breathing problems and he said she can’t catch her breath when they rough house or she gets very excited. It normally only lasts about ten seconds before she goes back to normal breathing. I have a strong history of asthma on my side of the family as well. I just wasn’t sure if this was normal or not. I do plan on bringing it up at her 2 year check-up next month either way, unless you think I should make an earlier appointment. Any insight you have would be appreciated.

  11. Hi Jenn:

    I have a couple of thoughts. The fact that your daughter had meconium aspiration and breathing troubles as an infant probably does set her up for wheezing problems later, although the specifics are pretty unpredictable. The symptoms you’re describing now — shortness of breath with exercise — are consistent with that. A problem with toddlers is that we can’t do some of the fancy lung tests we can do on older people to diagnose asthma because they require cooperation, which toddlers are not. I would definitely bring it up at her 2 year check up. One option would be a trial of inhaled medication to see if the symptoms improve.

    Good luck and thanks for stopping by.

  12. I have been having problems where I hear my self wheezing I don’t have any of what others are talking about I had s cat scan done on my heart everything came back fine until I still hear myself when I’m trying to sleep what do I need to do

  13. Thanks for visiting but it would be improper for me to offer specific medical advice over the internet.

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