It may be an all-too familiar sound if you or someone you love has asthma: the high-pitched whistle emanating from the chest that signals difficulty breathing.

The sound occurs when the airways in the lungs become inflamed and constricted due to inflammation. It's quite common in babies and young children—estimates are that up to 30 percent of infants wheeze during their first year of life, possibly due to their naturally smaller airways—but anyone at any age can develop wheezing.

Wheezing usually occurs during exhalation (breathing out) and is a hallmark of asthma, particularly when accompanied by coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. It can be loud, although sometimes if asthma is severe, the breathing tubes are so constricted that it can't be heard at all. But wheezing is not just an auditory phenomenon; it also can be felt quite clearly by sufferers. "My patients with asthma have described wheezing as a purring or vibrating in their chest or even as a choir in their lungs," says Andy Nish, MD, an allergist in Gainesville, GA.

In order to prevent wheezing from happening, it's crucial to get to the underlying issues causing it. "The idea is to try to control the inflammatory response," says Vincent Tubiolo, MD, an allergy, asthma, and immunology specialist in Santa Barbara, CA.

Medication, such as corticosteroids that are inhaled or swallowed in pill form, can loosen constricted airways, shrink swelling, and decrease mucus production that may be impeding breathing. A hot shower or vaporizer may help loosen mucus as well.

5 Tips to Prevent Wheezing

It's important to keep asthma from flaring up in the first place. If you have asthma and are prone to wheezing, follow these five tips to help head off a bout of wheezing before it has a chance to begin:

  1. Practice good hygiene (i.e., hand washing) to avoid catching respiratory viruses
  2. Eat a well-balanced diet to support your immune system
  3. Exercise
  4. Don't smoke or spend time in the presence of smokers.
  5. Get an annual flu shot.

Vincent Tubiolo, MD, and Andy Nish, MD, reviewed this article.


Vincent Tubiolo, MD,, email exchange with source, November 2013

Andy Nish, MD,, email exchange with source, November 2013

National Institutes of Health. "Wheezing.", accessed December 1, 2013

Cleveland Clinic. "Wheezing.", accessed December 1, 2013.