Wheezing is a characteristic whistling sound heard in the chest or in the breathing of a person who has partial obstruction of the smallest breathing tubes, the bronchioles (bronk-ee-oles). It is characteristic of asthma and bronchiolitis.
When a person breathes in, the chest expands, and everything in the chest expands along with it. This includes the breathing tubes. This makes it easier for air to go in (through larger air tubes during inspiration) than for it to go out (through smaller air tubes on expiration). This effect is magnified many times if there is any narrowing of the air passages, such as when there is swelling of the walls of the air tubes (for example from asthma or infection) or if there is debris and excessive thick mucus blocking the air passages (asthma or viral infection). The peculiar sound of wheezing is produced by the abnormal vibration of millions of tiny air tubes in this way.
Specific situations that involve a true wheezing or a wheezing sound in your child's breathing include:
- Newborns often sound wheezy at times. This is because of stuffy, narrow nasal passages, often with some old dried milk that has run up in the nasal passages from the rear during nursing. Saline drops and suction of the nose makes it disappear.
- Babies in the first few months and older infants with true wheezing caused by viral infection - usually RSV. This may be accompanied by clear nasal discharge and possibly fever. Call your doctor.
- Toddlers over a year with wheezing may still have a viral respiratory infection but allergic wheezing or asthma is a possibility.
- Older children with wheezing generally have a history of allergic symptoms and are more likely to have asthma. Asthma should be treated even if "it's not too bad," because untreated bronchial inflammation gets worse with time. Don't forget that their wheezing often starts with cold symptoms as well, though, because a cold is likely to trigger an attack in an asthmatic individual.
- Foreign bodies (popcorn, nuts, small plastic objects, food particles - you name it) in the bronchial tubes cause wheezing noises that are often confused with true wheezing. Many times the parents are able to give valuable clues to the doctor by observing that the wheezing started after the child seemed to choke on something.