When to See a Doctor for Wheezing

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young woman with asthma attack or respiratory problem holding hands to chest

Wheezing, a high-pitched, whistling sound that occurs when breathing, can be caused by many things and doesn’t always require treatment. Wheezing caused by exercising in cold, dry weather, for example, may not be any cause for concern—since cold, dry air can make even healthy people wheeze. But when wheezing causes a serious reduction in airflow to the lungs, then the situation could be a medical emergency. Everyone should know how to evaluate a wheezing episode so they can take appropriate action.

When Wheezing Is Nothing to Worry About

Although wheezing often is associated with an asthma attack, many things can cause a person to wheeze. In otherwise healthy children and adults, a brief wheezing episode usually is nothing to worry about.

However, you should see a doctor the first time you or your child experiences an episode of wheezing. Also talk to your provider if wheezing episodes persist for more than a few minutes, or if they come and go over a long period of time without explanation.

Your doctor can make a wheezing diagnosis that may identify one of these conditions as the cause:

  • Aspirin sensitivity or overuse
  • Asthma
  • Bacterial infection
  • Heart failure
  • Inhaled foreign object

Some of these conditions, typically an infection, can make your wheezing chest feel tight or may cause a combination of wheezing and cough. Your healthcare provider can provide medication or guidance on how to ease these symptoms. Treatment for wheezing might include antibiotics if the wheezing is caused by a bacterial infection, or inhalers to open the airways if the wheezing is a symptom of asthma.

When Wheezing Is a Medical Emergency

Sometimes, wheezing represents a medical emergency that requires immediate intervention. Anyone with asthma (or who has a child diagnosed with asthma) should keep an asthma action plan close by to evaluate wheezing episodes and proceed through the green-yellow-red zones as indicated.

For others, you should seek immediate medical attention for wheezing that is:

  • Causing the lips or nail beds to turn blue
  • Causing significant trouble breathing
  • Causing the person to pass out or become confused

Because a one-off episode of wheezing can be caused by something as simple as mucus buildup in the throat due to dry air, you shouldn’t become alarmed if this happens to you or your child. But if wheezing restricts breathing significantly or keeps happening for no apparent reason, then it’s time to seek guidance from a doctor.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 13
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Wheezing. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003070.htm
  2. Wheezing. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/wheezing/basics/definition/SYM-20050764?p=1
  3. Asthma Action Plans. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/asthma/actionplan.html