Wheezing In Babies: Causes, Symptoms And Treatment

Wheezing in babies could be a sign of benign to severe underlying issues.

Written by Rohit Garoo Experience: 9 years
 • 
 

Wheezing in infants might be an indicator of a breathing problem. Infants are more prone to wheezing because they have smaller respiratory muscles and breathing airways. Although wheezing is a common symptom in infants, it might be unsettling for their parents.

Although these symptoms can be treated at home, consult a doctor if you are concerned about your baby’s health. Read on to understand more about the causes of wheezing in babies, its treatment, and preventative measures.

What Is Wheezing?

Wheezing is a whistling sound that occurs when the baby breathes. The sound is often high-pitched and is similar to the sound of the wind blowing through a tunnel or that of a squeezed squeaky toy (1). Wheezing indicates a narrowing of the airways, which forces air through a smaller opening, thus causing the wheezing sound. The intensity of wheezing and its frequency can vary depending on the reason behind it.

What Causes Wheezing In Babies?

Wheezing is a symptom and indicates an abnormality in the baby’s breathing, due to problems in the respiratory tract. These problems can range from infections to autoimmune disorders. Here are the leading conditions that can cause wheezing in a baby (2) (3) (4):

  1. Bacterial and viral infections of the respiratory system can cause wheezing in babies. These infections cause widespread inflammation and accumulation of mucus, narrowing the airways to such an extent that the baby is unable to get enough air.

Several viruses and bacteria that cause the common cold, bronchiolitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, and general upper respiratory infection often lead to wheezing.

  1. A baby can be allergic to substances in the air that can cause wheezing. The airways that lead to the lungs react to an allergen by swelling and secreting extra mucus, which contributes to wheezing and shortness of breath. A baby can be allergic to many airborne substances including dust, dust mites, pollen, pet fur and dander, mold, and cockroaches (5).
  2. Genetically inherited diseases such as asthma are inherited through a problematic gene and cause wheezing in children (6) (7). Asthma, which is often triggered on exposure to a potential airborne allergen, is the most likely cause of recurrent wheezing in children below the age of five years. Cystic fibrosis is another genetically inherited disease with wheezing as one of the symptoms (8). It causes secretion of thick mucus, which clogs up the airways.
  1. Chronic acid reflux is an indicator of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), where the stomach contents and strong stomach acid tend to flow through the esophagus into the throat (9). The acid causes irritation when it comes in contact with the airways. The irritation and obstruction of the windpipe due to the stomach contents leads to wheezing, which is a prominent symptom of GERD (10).
  1. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when there is a blockage of the airways. A common cause of this condition is the infection of the tonsils or adenoid (11). The tissue expands as a result of infection and presses against the airways thus leading to wheezing sounds while breathing.
  1. A small toy that the baby puts inside their mouth could enter the airways and lead to obstruction of airways. A child may also choke on small food items like grapes, nuts, and raisins. Any obstruction of airway due to a foreign body will lead to the narrowing of the airway, which can cause wheezing while breathing.
  1. The uncommon causes of wheezing in babies include tumors in the throat and chest cavity, vocal cord dysfunction, congenital heart problems, upper respiratory system anomalies, and problems with the circulatory system.

Several reasons could lead to wheezing in babies, but parents may not always be able to discern if it is wheezing or anything else.

How To Tell If A Baby Is Wheezing?

The tell-tale sign of wheezing is the whistling sound you hear every time your baby breathes in and out. But if the sound is barely audible or you want to be extra sure that your baby is wheezing, then look for the following signs:

  1. The baby’s belly moves faster than normal. You also see the rapid expansion and contraction of the chest.
  1. A tightening of the neck muscles when breathing indicates distressed breathing.
  1. The nostrils repeatedly flare, or become wide open.
  1. The skin and face become red or blue. It can be due to inadequate oxygen in the blood.

When To Be Concerned About A Baby’s Wheezing?

Wheezing is common in babies with common cold or other respiratory infections. It usually disappears when the infection is gone. However, wheezing can be a cause for concern in some situations.

  1. Wheezes suddenly while eating: If the baby never had a wheezing problem and only begins to do so while eating, then it could be an indicator that they are choking due to a piece of food obstructing their airways.
  1. Wheezing when left alone: You must never leave babies alone, especially when they begin to crawl or walk and have easier access to smaller objects that they can put in their mouth. Foreign objects in the airways lead to obstruction and choking, causing a wheezing sound when the baby tries to breathe.
  1. Wheezing interferes with eating and sleeping: If the baby’s wheezing does not allow them to eat or sleep properly, then it could be a sign of severe illness.
  1. Wheezing occurs after you missed a medicine: Infants with asthma and cystic fibrosis will need to be given medication on time, without fail. Missing the schedule will cause a relapse of the symptoms. Babies with severe asthma will also require carrying an inhaler for emergencies.

If wheezing appears suddenly and causes severe discomfort to the baby, take them to the doctor right away.

How Is Wheezing In Babies Treated?

Treating the underlying cause usually treats wheezing. Treatment options include:

  1. Antibiotics work against bacterial infections. Adhering to the antibiotic course is vital to cure the disease that has led to wheezing in the first place.
  1. Relevant medications and treatment procedures: Babies with asthma or cystic fibrosis, which do not have a cure, will need a specialized treatment plan to subdue the illness (12) (13). But symptoms like wheezing can be controlled with the help of medicines in the form of vapor, using special equipment, such as a nebulizer.

Other severe causes of wheezing such as obstructive sleep apnea due to tonsil or adenoid infection may be resolved through surgery. Surgery, however, is seldom needed, and most cases can be resolved through medications alone. Rare reasons for wheezing such as congenital heart defects will require surgery and elaborate post-operative care.

  1. Humidifiers: Humidifiers make breathing easier for the baby. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the use of cool-mist humidifiers for infants who have trouble breathing correctly due to a respiratory illness or infection (14).
  1. Keeping the nose clear: Use saline drops and a bulb syringe to clear airways of mucus when your baby has cold (15). A rubber bulb syringe allows you to suction the mucus out from the from the baby’s nostril. Always consult the baby’s pediatrician to use the saline drops best suited for your baby’s age.

Wheezing can be prevented in certain cases, which we discuss next.

How To Prevent Wheezing In Babies?

Preventing wheezing among infants is about preventing the things that cause wheezing. While you cannot avoid genetically inherited diseases, you can minimize the risk of wheezing from other causes.

  1. Protect baby from pathogens: Keep the baby’s surroundings clean. Observe caution and keep the baby away from family members with infection. Guardians and parents with infection should wear a mask when attending to the baby.
  1. Administer medicines on time: Babies with asthma should be given medicines on time. Keep the baby’s medication handy at all times to prevent the onset of wheezing and other complications.
  1. Avoid choking hazards: Babies explore the things around them by holding them and putting it in their mouth. This invariably leaves them exposed to a potential choking hazard. To prevent that, baby-proof your house and remove any items that can pose as a choking hazard to the baby. Also, do not feed the baby grapes, raisins, nuts, and other foods that can get stuck in the windpipe easily.
  1. Be alert to early signs of wheezing: Your baby may display some early signs of wheezing, such as rapid breathing and breathlessness. Be watchful of these symptoms and act quickly. A prompt diagnosis will allow for timely treatment, which will prevent complications later in life.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How long can wheezing last in babies?

The duration of wheezing in babies might be dependent on the cause. Usually, wheezing in babies might last seven to ten days. In the meantime, it is advisable to consult a pediatrician to identify the cause of wheezing and treat it (15).

2. Will wheezing go away on its own?

Several factors could cause wheezing. If the condition is benign, it might go away on its own. However, treating the underlying condition is necessary if the wheezing is due to an underlying illness, such as cold, asthma, or bronchitis (16).

Wheezing in babies is a common condition and seldom causes concern. Although it is most likely due to an infection or allergic reaction, it may sometimes indicate an underlying condition such as asthma. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the normal and concerning signs of wheezing in babies to seek timely medical help. However, do not panic if your baby is wheezing but consult your child’s doctor, who may recommend effective treatment options or home remedies to manage wheezing in babies.

References

1. When Wheezing Is Worrisome?; Cincinnati Children’s Hospital
2. The Diagnosis of Wheezing in Children; American Academy of Family Physicians
3. Why your wheezing baby may need TLC, not medication; Harvard Medical School
4. Signs And Symptoms Of RSV; University of Utah
5. Wheezing, Shortness of Breath; American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology
6. Asthma; World Health Organization
7. Cystic Fibrosis Symptoms and Treatment; UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh
8. Gastroesophageal Reflux & Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease; American Academy of Pediatrics
9. What is GERD or Gastroesophageal reflux disease; Harvard Medical School
10. Pediatric Infant Apnea; Children’s National Health System
11. Asthma; UNC School of Medicine
12. Treating Cystic Fibrosis; University of Chicago
13. Caring for Your Child’s Cold or Flu American Academy of Pediatrics
14. Common Conditions in Newborns; American Academy of Pediatrics
15. Bronchiolitis; The Royal Children’s Hospital
16. Wheezing; Cleveland Clinic
Was this article helpful?
thumbsupthumbsdown

Latest Articles