Your Guide to Wheezing: What Every Malaysian Needs to Know

Your Guide to Wheezing: What Every Malaysian Needs to Know

Table of Contents

Understanding Wheezing: A High-Pitched Breathing Sound

Wheezing is a term often used to describe a particular breathing sound, typically characterized as a high-pitched whistling-like noise. This sound tends to become noticeable during inhalation, particularly when taking a deep breath.

Accompanying the wheezing sound, certain symptoms can also manifest. This includes difficulty breathing, a phenomenon often paired with an increased breathing rate. When observing an individual experiencing these symptoms, you may notice prominent chest and neck muscles during respiration. This is known as the usage of accessory muscles of respiration.

Wheezing is not to be taken lightly as it may be an indication of a potential respiratory issue. It’s vital to seek medical attention if you or a loved one experiences wheezing or associated symptoms.

The Causes of Wheezing: Understanding Narrowed Airways

Wheezing can stem from several problems, most often associated with lung or heart conditions. Essentially, when a person experiences wheezing, their airway — the pathway connecting the nose through to the lungs — becomes narrowed and inflamed.

Picture a typical, healthy airway. Its diameter is wide, allowing air to flow in and out without resistance. However, when someone starts wheezing, inflammation develops within the airway, causing an abundance of phlegm to form. This phlegm subsequently narrows the airway, making it more difficult for air to pass through, and in turn, causing the distinctive high-pitched wheezing sound.

Comparing a normal, wide airway to an inflamed, narrow one demonstrates the stark contrast in air movement. In a narrowed airway, phlegm obstructs the pathway, leading to the wheezing sound. This wheezing can be further exacerbated as the muscles around the airway constrict due to inflammation. Consequently, the whistling sound – or wheezing – becomes more prominent. Understanding this process is vital for the management and treatment of this condition.

Common Conditions that can Cause Wheezing

There are various lung conditions that can result in the emergence of a wheezing sound. Here are some of the most common ones:

  1. Asthma: During an asthmatic attack, there can be significant wheezing. This is due to sudden narrowing or constriction of the airways.
  2. Lung Infections: Conditions such as pneumonia or bronchopneumonia can also cause wheezing, especially if the infection induces bronchospasm, which is the sudden constriction of the airways in pneumonia patients.
  3. Tuberculosis (TB): This infectious disease can cause wheezing, particularly if it’s affecting the airways. This type of tuberculosis is known as endobronchial TB.
  4. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Chronic smokers often suffer from COPD and may experience wheezing sound, especially during COPD exacerbations.
  5. Allergic Reactions: An allergic reaction can also lead to wheezing, especially in instances of difficulty breathing. I’ve observed several patients develop such reactions after being stung or bitten by bees, resulting in immediate breathing difficulties and wheezing.
  6. Foreign Body Obstruction: Sometimes, a foreign body can become lodged or stuck in our airways, causing wheezing.
  7. Heart Problems: Certain heart conditions, such as heart failure, can also result in a wheezing sound.

Each of these conditions can lead to inflammation and narrowing of the airways, the main factors contributing to wheezing. Understanding these conditions can help in the early diagnosis and effective treatment of the underlying cause of wheezing.

Infections that can Lead to Wheezing

An infection, whether viral or bacterial, that affects your airways or lungs can cause wheezing. Here are some common ones:

Viral Infections

  1. Rhinovirus: Commonly known as the cold virus, rhinovirus can cause infection and inflammation of the airways, leading to wheezing.
  2. Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV): This virus is another common cause of wheezing, especially in young children.
  3. Influenza Viruses (A, B, C, D, E): These are notorious for causing respiratory infections that can lead to wheezing.
  4. Parainfluenza Viruses: These viruses primarily affect the respiratory tract and can cause wheezing.
  5. COVID Virus: The COVID virus can also cause inflammation of the airways, leading to wheezing.

Bacterial Infections

  1. Streptococcus Pneumoniae: This bacterium is a common cause of pneumonia and can result in wheezing.
  2. Klebsiella Pneumoniae: This is another bacterium that causes pneumonia and can cause wheezing.
  3. Moraxella Catarrhalis: This bacterium is often associated with respiratory infections and can cause wheezing.

These are just a few examples of the many bacterial and viral infections that can affect our lungs and airways, leading to wheezing. It’s crucial to get a proper diagnosis and treatment if you start experiencing wheezing symptoms, as they might indicate an underlying infection.

Foreign Objects and Wheezing

A fairly common cause of wheezing, especially in children, is the presence of a foreign object lodged in the airways. Accidental inhalation of small items can occur during play or while eating, and can cause significant distress, including wheezing.

Choking Episodes and Wheezing

During a choking episode, a foreign object may become dislodged in the airway. This can trigger wheezing as the body attempts to clear the obstruction. Such instances often occur while eating, and common culprits include fish bones or chicken bones.

Non-Food Foreign Objects

Non-food items, such as coins, pins, or pen caps, can also end up in the airway, particularly in children. These can cause a noticeable wheezing sound as the air struggles to flow freely through the narrowed or blocked airway.

While inflammation and infection are major causes of wheezing, the presence of a foreign body is not to be overlooked, particularly in children. It’s important to remain vigilant and seek immediate medical attention if wheezing develops following a choking incident or suspected inhalation of a foreign object.

Duration of Wheezing: How Long Will It Last?

The duration of wheezing varies significantly among individuals and is influenced by several factors. It may last for just a few minutes, hours, or even persist for a few days.

This duration is largely dependent on:

  1. The underlying cause of wheezing: Different illnesses and conditions can provoke wheezing, and each has its own recovery timeline.
  2. The patient’s rate of seeking treatment: Timely medical intervention can often reduce the duration of wheezing.
  3. The individual’s recovery rate: People recover at different rates, even from the same condition. This rate can affect how long the wheezing lasts.
  4. The effectiveness of treatment: If the underlying cause can be treated swiftly and effectively, the duration of wheezing can be reduced.

Remember, each case is unique and the length of wheezing really depends on the person and the specific circumstances surrounding their health condition.

Will Wheezing Go Away By Itself?

The severity of wheezing often determines whether it will resolve by itself or requires medical treatment. While mild wheezing can sometimes resolve independently, it’s essential to note that wheezing typically indicates an underlying problem requiring attention.

In most instances, the following treatments may be employed:

  1. Inhalers: These provide fast-acting relief and are commonly used for conditions like asthma.
  2. Nebulizers: A nebulizer can turn medication into a mist to help treat your lungs.
  3. Steroid Injections: In severe cases, these can be used to reduce inflammation in the respiratory tract.
  4. Antibiotics: If a bacterial infection causes wheezing, antibiotics may be administered.
  5. Oxygen: In some severe cases, supplemental oxygen may be needed to ensure proper oxygenation.

Remember, if you or a loved one experience wheezing, especially if associated with other symptoms like difficulty breathing or a fast breathing rate, it’s crucial to seek medical attention promptly. Always consult a healthcare professional to receive an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Consequences of Untreated Wheezing: Prevention is Better than Cure

Untreated wheezing can lead to severe health problems and even become life-threatening.

To illustrate this, let me share a recent case: a young boy had a severe asthmatic attack after returning from a football match. Despite using his regular inhaler, his wheezing persisted. Tragically, he couldn’t reach the hospital in time, and upon arrival, he was already showing signs of hypoxia-induced brain damage.

Hypoxia is a condition where the body or a region of the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply. Prolonged hypoxia can cause serious damage to organs, including the brain, as it cannot tolerate very low oxygen levels. If this condition lasts for more than eight minutes, it can potentially lead to irreversible brain damage and, ultimately, death.

Please remember that wheezing is a serious symptom that should not be taken lightly. Always prioritize lung health. If you or someone you know experiences wheezing, seek immediate medical help to determine the cause and appropriate treatment. Every second counts when it comes to preserving health and preventing severe outcomes.

When to Seek Medical Help: Diagnosis and Tests for Wheezing

Wheezing warrants immediate attention from a healthcare professional, as only a doctor can accurately diagnose the underlying cause of your wheezing. This diagnosis involves a comprehensive lung examination where the doctor listens to your lungs using a stethoscope to pinpoint any anomalies.

Determining whether your wheezing is a result of a lung or heart problem is crucial. To do so, doctors typically follow a thorough lung examination with a chest x-ray, an imaging test that provides a detailed view of your lung tissues and heart size.

Diagnosing conditions like asthma, another potential cause of wheezing, may require further testing such as spirometry. This non-invasive test evaluates your lung function, specifically looking for any obstructive issues in your airway or problems within your lung tissues.

For a more detailed look at your lung health, you may need to undergo a CT scan. And if there’s suspicion of a foreign body lodged in your lung airway, a bronchoscopy may be necessary. This procedure allows physicians to view your airway and remove any foreign body if present.

These various tests are crucial to determine the root cause of your wheezing and devise an appropriate treatment plan. Don’t hesitate to seek medical assistance if you’re experiencing wheezing or any breathing difficulties.

Treating Wheezing: Addressing the Root Cause

Before we can effectively treat wheezing, we must first identify its underlying cause. As discussed in the previous section, this involves a thorough lung checkup, including procedures such as a chest x-ray, spirometry, a CT scan, or even bronchoscopy.

Once the root cause is discovered, a targeted treatment can be initiated. Let’s take a few examples.

  1. Allergic Reaction: In the case of a patient who developed wheezing after being stung by a bee, an allergic reaction might be at play. Here, steroids can be administered to alleviate the bronchospasm or narrowing of the airway caused by the reaction.
  2. Foreign Body Obstruction: If a foreign object lodged in the airway is causing the wheezing, it needs to be removed — typically via bronchoscopy.
  3. Infection: If pneumonia with bronchospasm is identified as the cause, antibiotics would be the appropriate treatment to combat the infection, consequently alleviating the wheezing.
  4. Tuberculosis (TB): In the case of TB-induced wheezing, the patient would need to commence anti-TB treatment.

In essence, treating wheezing involves identifying and addressing its root cause. This personalized treatment approach ensures that the treatment is effective and reduces the likelihood of the wheezing returning.

Does Wheezing Mean Lung Damage?

Wheezing doesn’t necessarily mean there is lung damage. Generally, wheezing is due to problems in the airway. However, some patients may have concomitant lung issues in addition to airway problems.

Sometimes, wheezing can signal that there’s a problem with the airway, while at other times, it may also signify that other lung tissues are damaged. This underlines the importance of a thorough lung assessment. A proper examination by a doctor is necessary to identify the severity of the problem and whether it involves just the airway or extends to the lungs.

In essence, wheezing can mean a range of things. It can signify that your airway is inflamed, but it may also imply that your lung tissues are affected, especially if an infection has severely impacted both the airway and the lungs.

Identifying Serious Wheezing Symptoms: When To Seek Emergency Help

While mild wheezing can sometimes resolve on its own, it’s important to be aware of signs that your condition could be more serious. Wheezing associated with difficulty breathing, low oxygenation, or rapid breathing should be considered serious.

One way to check oxygenation is by using a pulse oximeter. If it shows that your oxygen levels are below 95%, this is a warning sign that should not be ignored.

Similarly, take note of your breathing rate. A normal breathing rate should be less than 20 breaths per minute. If you observe a breathing rate higher than this, it’s an indication that something may not be right with your lungs or breathing.

Another symptom to watch for is bluish discoloration of the lips. This can indicate low oxygen levels in the blood.

If any of these signs occur, it’s crucial that you quickly get to the emergency department of your nearest hospital or call an ambulance. These symptoms could indicate a serious respiratory issue that requires immediate attention.


Wheezing is a common but potentially serious symptom that requires careful attention. While often associated with conditions like asthma, allergies, infections, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), wheezing can also result from heart problems, foreign bodies obstructing the airway, or a range of other lung-related issues. It signifies that your airway is inflamed or narrowed, making it difficult for air to move freely in and out.

The duration of wheezing varies from person to person and largely depends on the underlying cause, the individual’s health status, and their response to treatment. While mild wheezing can sometimes resolve on its own, more severe cases require medical intervention.

Recognizing serious symptoms associated with wheezing – such as difficulty breathing, low oxygen levels, or rapid breathing – is crucial, as these can signify a more serious, potentially life-threatening condition. If such symptoms are present, seeking immediate medical attention is essential.

In conclusion, while wheezing might sometimes be dismissed as a minor concern, it can be an important indicator of underlying health problems. If you or someone else is experiencing wheezing, especially if it’s accompanied by other concerning symptoms, do not hesitate to seek professional medical advice. Taking care of your lung health is a critical part of overall wellbeing. Remember, prevention is always better than cure.

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Dr. Nurul Yaqeen

Consultant Respiratory, Internal Medicine Physician, Sleep Disorders Specialist


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