What is a Wheezing Cough?
A wheezing cough is a type of cough that gets triggered due to asthma, allergies, or a viral infection. In rare cases, a wheezing cough can also be triggered due to severe medical complications.
Wheezing cough can affect people of all ages, but when it affects children or an infant, then it can be a cause of concern.
Causes of Wheezing Cough in Adults
There are many causes of a wheezing cough in adults. The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology classify the following as the most common causes of a wheezing cough in adults:(1)
Wheezing is known to be one of the most common symptoms of asthma. (2) Asthma symptoms cause the lining of the airways to become inflamed and narrow. The muscles in the airways also start to tighten, and the airways get filled with mucus. This makes it more difficult for you to get air into your lungs.
These conditions are known to kick start an asthma flare-up or attack. The symptoms of an asthma flare-up include:
- Wheezing, both while coughing and when breathing(3)
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness in the chest
Bacterial or Viral Infections
Another common cause of a wheezing cough is bacterial or viral infections. Bacterial or viral infections such as bronchitis are known to produce the following symptoms:
- Persistent cough with mucus
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Low fever
All these symptoms can lead to a wheezing cough.
Furthermore, the common cold, which is a common viral infection, can also cause wheezing if it settles in the chest.(4)
Another infection, pneumonia, which can be caused by viruses, bacteria, or even fungi, also causes inflammation in the air sacs inside your lungs. This inflammation makes it difficult for you to breathe, and the common symptoms of pneumonia also include a wheezing cough, along with chest pain, fatigue, sweating or chills, or a phlegmy cough.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, commonly known as COPD, is an umbrella term that consists of a variety of progressive diseases that affect the lung and the airways. The most common of these progressive lung diseases that come under chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
Many people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease have both these conditions.
Emphysema: Also known as pulmonary emphysema(5), emphysema is a progressive lung condition that commonly affects people who smoke. Over a period of time, the condition weakness and destroys the air sacs in the lungs, making it harder for oxygen to get into the bloodstream. Symptoms of emphysema include wheezing, coughing, extreme fatigue, and shortness of breath.
Chronic Bronchitis: Another health condition that falls under chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is chronic bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is caused by damage to the bronchial tubes. In the bronchial tubes, there are hair-like fibers that are known as cilia. Chronic bronchitis causes damage to these cilia. Without the cilia in the bronchial tubes, it becomes difficult to cough up mucus, causing more coughing. This leads to irritation to the tubes, causing them to become inflamed. This makes it difficult to breathe, resulting in a wheezing cough.(6)
Being allergic to dust mites, pollen, dust, mold, pet dander, or certain types of foods can also result in a wheezing cough.
While it is rare, some people can develop anaphylaxis, which is a life-threatening and serious medical emergency that needs immediate attention. Such types of reactions occur almost immediately after you are exposed to an allergen. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
You need immediate medical assistance in case of an anaphylactic reaction.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
In people with gastroesophageal reflux disease(7), the stomach acid starts backing up into the esophagus. This is also known as acid reflux or acid regurgitation.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease is known to affect nearly 20 percent (8) of people in the United States. Symptoms of this condition include:
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
If left untreated, the irritation from these symptoms can lead to a chronic cough.
There are certain types of heart disease that cause fluid to accumulate in the lungs. This, in turn, can cause persistent coughing and wheezing. This can also be accompanied by pink or white blood-tinged mucus.
Causes of Wheezing Cough in Babies
Similar to adults, there are a variety of ailments and health conditions that can lead to a baby having a wheezing cough.
Here are some of the more common causes of a wheezing cough in babies:
Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV)
Respiratory syncytial virus is a very common viral infection that can affect people of all ages. It is even more common in children and babies. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (9), most children are likely to get infected by the respiratory syncytial virus before they turn two years.
In most cases, babies will develop a mild cold or flu-like symptoms, including a wheezing cough. However, some cases of this infection may worsen and lead to the development of more severe diseases such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis.
Premature babies, and babies who have a weakened immune system or a lung or heart condition, are at a higher risk of developing complications with this infection.
Bronchiolitis is a common lung infection that affects young infants. This condition can happen when the small air passages in the lungs, known as bronchioles, become inflamed or fill up with mucus. This makes it difficult for a baby to breathe.
When this happens, the infant may experience a wheezing cough. Most of the cases of bronchiolitis are caused by the respiratory syncytial virus itself.
Croup or Common Cold
A wheezing cough can also be a resultant of a viral infection such as croup or the common cold.
A runny or stuffed nose is usually the first symptom that the baby has caught a cold. The nasal discharge is likely to be clear at first and then turns yellowish-green and thicker after a couple of days.
Other symptoms of such viral infections include:
- Difficulty in nursing
Croup can be a result of many different types of viruses. The symptoms of croup are also similar to those of a common cold but also include hoarseness and a barking cough.
Even babies might be allergic to dust mites, pet dander, pollen, cigarette smoke, mold, insect stings, or even foods such as milk and milk products. All these allergic reactions can cause a baby to develop a wheezing cough.
Even though it is rare, some cases of allergic reactions may turn into anaphylaxis, which is a severe and life-threatening medical emergency and require immediate medical attention.
Allergic reactions tend to occur almost immediately after exposure to an allergen and are similar to the symptoms of allergic reactions in adults. These include:
- Rash or hives
- Trouble breathing
- Swollen throat or tongue
If you suspect that your child may be having an anaphylactic reaction, you need to seek medical assistance immediately.
Pertussis, the medical name for whooping cough, is a type of respiratory infection that is caused by a certain kind of bacteria. Although whooping cough can affect people of all ages, but it is especially severe for babies and young children.
At first, the symptoms are very similar to those of a common cold, including:
- Runny nose
Within a few weeks, a persistent, dry cough may develop, making it difficult for the child to breathe.
It is common for children to make a ‘whoop’ noise when they are breathing after coughing when they have pertussis. But this sound is less commonly audible in infants. Some of the other symptoms of whooping cough in babies and children include:
- Low-grade fever
- Purple or bluish skin around the mouth
Asthma is typically diagnosed once the baby turns one year old. However, it is possible for an infant to experience asthma-like symptoms such as wheezing cough.
Sometimes, a doctor will prescribe asthma medication even before the baby turns one year old to check if the symptoms respond to the treatment for asthma.
If a baby or young child starts to cough suddenly and does not have any other type of illness, even a cold, then it is essential to check that they are not choking. The cough may be with or without wheezing. Small objects can easily get stuck in the throat, causing them to wheeze or cough.
Choking is a medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention.
When to Seek Medical Assistance
It is absolutely important that you seek immediate medical assistance if you, or your baby, have a wheezing cough along with the following symptoms:
- Chest tightness
- Difficulty breathing
- Rattling in the chest
- Breathing is irregular or rapid
- Bluish tint on the skin
- Extreme fatigue
- A persistent body temperature of above 38.3oC (101oF) for babies younger than 3 months, or 39.4oC (103oF) for adults.
- A wheezing cough begins after taking some medication, eating certain foods, or after getting stung by an insect
If your child is unwell and also has a wheezing cough, then you should make sure to follow up with their doctor. It is necessary to have it checked out because babies are not able to verbalize their symptoms and let you know how they are feeling. This is why it is always best to have your baby examined by a doctor to get a proper diagnosis and treatment.
Home Remedies for Treating a Wheezing Cough
There are many home remedies that you can try out to manage the symptoms of a wheezing cough. However, only try these home remedies if your wheezing cough is mild to moderate. In cases of severe wheezing cough, you should consult a doctor at the earliest to get a proper diagnosis and begin treatment.
Also, before trying out the home remedies, make sure that you consult your doctor and get approval for treating your cough at home. Keep in mind that these home remedies are not meant to replace actual medical treatment, but they may prove to be beneficial to use along with the treatments or medications that your doctor has prescribed for you.
A humidifier is one of the easiest ways to get relief from a wheezing cough. A humidifier works by releasing water vapor or steam into the air to increase humidity in the air. Breathing air that has more moisture or humidity in it helps relieve congestion and also loosens mucus.
Using a humidifier is ideal for both babies and adults. You can opt for running a humidifier at night while you or your child is sleeping.
Inhaling moist steam or air will make it easier for you to breathe. This also helps reduce the severity of your wheezing cough. There are many ways to use steam for relieving a wheezing cough. These include:
- Taking a hot shower with the fan off, and the door closed.
- Filling up a bowl with hot water, put your towel over your head, and then lean over the bowl to inhale the steam.
- Sit in the bathroom with the hot shower running. This is one of the best ways of using steam on an infant.
This is appropriate for adults only. For adults who have bronchial asthma, doing deep breathing exercises can be helpful. These deep breathing exercises are similar to the ones done in yoga.
In 2009, a study done by the Swamy Consultant Physician Mittal Hospital in India found that people who have bronchial asthma and did breathing exercises for at least 20 minutes at least two times a day for 12 weeks, experienced lesser symptoms and also had better lung function than those who did not do the deep breathing exercises. (10)
Drinking Warm Liquids
Warm water with a teaspoon of honey, hot tea, or any other warm beverages can help relax your airway and also loosen mucus. However, keep in mind that hot tea or boiling water is not ideal for infants.
Avoid Known Allergens
If you already know what triggers your wheezing cough, then you should take the necessary steps to avoid or reduce contact with the triggers of your allergy.
Some of the most common environmental allergens that trigger a wheezing cough include dust mites, pollen, mold, pet dander, latex, and insect stings. Common food allergens are wheat, eggs, milk, fish, nuts, shellfish, and soybeans.
You should also avoid cigarette smoke as it is known to make a wheezing cough worse.
Honey can help soothe a cough in both adults and children (who are over one year of age). One teaspoon of honey can be as effective at relieving cough as many cough medications. However, it is essential to know that you should not give honey to a child younger than a year old due to the high risk of developing botulism.
A 2013 study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had found that a spoonful of honey helps a coughing child sleep better throughout the night. (11)
Over-The-Counter Cough Medications
You can always use some over-the-counter cough medicine to get relief from your wheezing cough. However, it is essential that you do not use any over the counter medications in children who are younger than six years as giving medications to children without consulting their pediatrician can prove to be dangerous.
Suck on Cough Drops Or Hard Candy
Honey, lemon, or even menthol-flavored cough drops help soothe irritated airways, providing relief from a wheezing cough. Again, you cannot give these to young children as they can be a choking hazard.
Having a wheezing cough is usually a symptom that you have some kind of mild illness or another manageable medical condition. However, even though it might be mild, it is still important to pay attention to the duration, severity, and any other accompanying symptoms of the cough, especially in young children and babies.
If you or your child has a wheezing cough that is accompanied by breathing that is irregular, rapid, or labored, bluish skin, a high fever, or chest tightness, then you should get immediate medical assistance to avoid any dangerous complications.
You also need immediate medical attention if you suspect that the wheezing cough is a result of anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening condition, and in this condition, reactions tend to occur rapidly after exposure to an allergen.
- ACAAI Public Website. (2019). Wheezing, Shortness of Breath. [online] Available at: https://acaai.org/allergies/allergy-symptoms/wheezing-shortness-breath [Accessed 27 Dec. 2019].
- Koh, Y.Y., Chae, S.A. and Min, K.U., 1993. Cough variant asthma is associated with a higher wheezing threshold than classic asthma. Clinical & Experimental Allergy, 23(8), pp.696-701.
- Takemura, M., Niimi, A., Matsumoto, H., Ueda, T., Yamaguchi, M., Matsuoka, H., Jinnai, M., Chin, K. and Mishima, M., 2007. Atopic features of cough variant asthma and classic asthma with wheezing. Clinical & Experimental Allergy, 37(12), pp.1833-1839.
- MedicineNet. (2019). Research Shows How Colds Lead to Coughing, Wheezing – MedicineNet. [online] Available at: https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=156412 [Accessed 27 Dec. 2019].
- McLean, K.H., 1958. The pathogenesis of pulmonary emphysema. The American journal of medicine, 25(1), pp.62-74.
- Reid, L.M., 1954. Pathology of chronic bronchitis. Lancet, pp.275-8.
- The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. (2019). Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease | AAAAI. [online] Available at: https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/related-conditions/gastroesophageal-reflux-disease [Accessed 28 Dec. 2019].
- Information, H., Diseases, D., Adults, A., Facts, D., GERD, D., Center, T. and Health, N. (2019). Definition & Facts for GER & GERD | NIDDK. [online] National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Available at: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/acid-reflux-ger-gerd-adults/definition-facts [Accessed 28 Dec. 2019].
- Cdc.gov. (2019). RSV | Symptoms and Care | Respiratory Syncytial Virus | CDC. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/rsv/about/symptoms.html [Accessed 28 Dec. 2019].
- Saxena, T. and Saxena, M., 2009. The effect of various breathing exercises (pranayama) in patients with bronchial asthma of mild to moderate severity. International journal of yoga, 2(1), p.22.
- Ashkin, E. and Mounsey, A., 2013. A spoonful of honey helps a coughing child sleep. The Journal of family practice, 62(3), p.145.