Wheezing is a high-pitched, squeaking, whistling sound that is caused by airflow through narrowed smaller airways. Many people associate wheezing with asthma. Asthma is one of the most common diseases that produces wheezing, but there are other conditions that cause narrowing of the airways and produce the wheezing sound.
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Asthma is an obstructive disease of the lower airways. An asthma attack is triggered by an allergen such as animal fur or pollen, exercise or an upper respiratory infection. During the attack the lower airways react with inflammation, which causes narrowing of the airways, making it difficult for air to move in and out. Patients will have wheezing during the asthma attack. Wheezing can be mild to severe depending on how much narrowing is occurring.
Bronochiolitis is another condition that will cause wheezing. Bronchiolitis is seen primarily in children younger than 2 years of age, but it can occur in adults. Symptoms are very similar to asthma. According to "Emergency Nursing Core Curriculum," patients will have several days of cough, runny nose and a slight fever. The cough will increase and the patient will have shortness of breath and wheezing.
Wheezing can be heard in patients who have emphysema. Emphysema is a long-term progressive disease of the lungs that affects the ability of air to flow out of the lungs. In addition to the wheezing, patients with emphysema will complain of shortness of breath with any type of exertion and frequent respiratory infections.
Croup is usually seen in children ages 6 months to 3 years. Classic croup symptoms include a barking cough, hoarse voice and a high-pitched sound from the upper airways. Croup causes swelling of the vocal cords, causing the cough, hoarseness and a high-pitched sound. The high-pitched sound from the upper airway is called stridor, but because most patients with croup will have had one to two days of respiratory infection, wheezing in the lower airways is not uncommon.
Foreign bodies lodged in the upper or lower airways can cause wheezing. The most common foreign bodies are food, most often peanuts, but may also include coins, small toys or small disc batteries. The patient will present with drooling, cough and wheezing.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a disease that causes airflow obstruction. In COPD there is chronic or recurrent increased airway resistance of the lungs. Causative factors in the development of COPD are smoking, occupational exposure to chemicals and environmental pollution. Patients with COPD are very short of breath and have wheezing and rattling in their chest.