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Wheezing in Infants and Children

By

The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Oct 2019| Content last modified Oct 2019
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Topic Resources

What is wheezing?

Wheezing is a whistling sound that happens when a person is trying to breathe out, but the airways in the lungs are partly blocked.

  • Wheezing is common in asthma, but it can also be caused by allergies and respiratory infections such as bronchiolitis, colds, and flu

  • Some children who have wheezing when they are young go on to develop asthma

  • Doctors sometimes prescribe medicines to open the airways

When should my child see a doctor?

Go to the emergency department at a hospital right away if your child has wheezing and any of these warning signs:

  • Wheezing sound when breathing in, not just when breathing out

  • Fast breathing

  • Using a lot of the chest muscles to breathe

  • Wide (flaring) nostrils when breathing

  • Blue color around the lips

Call the doctor if your child has wheezing and problems eating or drinking, but none of the warning signs.

What causes wheezing in children?

Wheezing that happens suddenly is usually caused by a virus such as a cold or flu.

If the wheezing keeps coming back, it’s usually caused by:

Less common causes of wheezing include:

  • Inhaled object, food, or liquids in the lungs

  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)

  • Heart failure

What will happen at my child’s doctor visit?

Your doctor will ask you questions about your child’s wheezing and if other family members have allergies or asthma. Doctors will also do a physical exam.

What tests will my child need?

The first time your child has wheezing, doctors may do one or more tests:

  • Do a chest x-ray to look for an object inhaled into the lungs, pneumonia, or heart failure

  • Place a sensor on your child’s finger to painlessly measure oxygen in the blood (pulse oximetry)

If doctors are sure your child's wheezing is caused by asthma, they don't usually do tests each time your child has some wheezing.

If the wheezing keeps coming back and isn't helped by asthma medicines, doctors may do other tests:

  • Swallowing studies, where doctors take videos of your child swallowing food or liquids

  • Bronchoscopy, where doctors put a small flexible tube with a camera through your child's nose and throat to look into the lungs

How do doctors treat wheezing in children?

Doctors may have your child use an inhaler to breathe in medicines that open the breathing passages. These are the same medicines used for asthma, but they also work for wheezing that isn't caused by asthma. If your child’s wheezing is severe, doctors may also give corticosteroids through an IV or by mouth.

Inhalers

Inhalers (also called metered-dose inhalers) are small, hand-held devices. They are the most common way to take asthma medicines. They turn medicine into a fine spray your child can breathe. An inhaler that has a spacer or holding chamber is easier to use.

NOTE: This is the Consumer Version. DOCTORS: Click here for the Professional Version
Click here for the Professional Version
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