Wheezing is not a disease in itself, but it is a symptom or sign of respiratory problems. It is a form of breathing difficulty wherein the affected person makes a high-pitched whistling sound while breathing out or exhaling. In case of infants, the immune system has not yet completely developed, which is why it is advisable to consult a doctor to identify and treat the underlying cause of wheezing at the earliest.
Wheezing is quite common in infants and young children. In fact, almost 30-40% children wheeze before they become 3 years old. As mentioned earlier, wheezing is actually a whistling sound that you can hear when your child breathes. This sound is basically the result of some obstruction in the airflow from the lungs. The air that we breathe enters through the nose and/or mouth through a tube called the trachea/windpipe, which in turn branches into two tubes called bronchi. Bronchi branch into smaller tubes called the bronchioles. The narrowing of the bronchi and bronchioles could occur in the event of inflammation from an infection, allergic reaction, asthma, or a physical obstruction. It must be noted that not every episode of wheezing indicates asthma. Bronchiolitis, GERD, dysfunction of the vocal cord, ingestion of some foreign body in the airway, etc., are some other causes.
Asthma is one of the causes of chronic wheezing in infants. It leads to swelling and tightening of the bronchial tubes. Asthma could give rise to symptoms such as wheezing, breathing problems, coughing, etc. The symptoms may worsen when the child is exposed to irritants such as dust, dander, mold, etc.
Bronchiolitis is a respiratory infection that affects children below the age of 2 years, with a peak age of 3 to 6 months. Since the airways of infants are smaller in size, they are more susceptible to bronchiolitis as compared to older children. This condition is characterized by mucus buildup and inflammation of the bronchioles. Infection caused by the RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) is one of the common contributing factors for bronchiolitis. Adenovirus, Influenza, and Parainfluenza virus could also be the causal organisms for this lower respiratory tract infection. The symptoms of bronchiolitis include common cold, cough, runny nose, wheezing, difficulty in breathing, and fever.
Ingestion of Foreign Body
If a food particle or object enters the breathing tube and gets lodged in the airway passage, it could cause choking followed by breathing difficulty and wheezing.
In rare cases, children might experience wheezing due to:
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Congestive heart failure
- Cystic fibrosis
- Vocal cord dysfunction
Diagnosis and Treatment
As there are so many possible causes of wheezing in babies, it is essential to determine the underlying cause. The parents need to inform the pediatrician about the time of onset, frequency of wheezing, and other details. Diagnosing asthma in infants is quite difficult, as the lung function test cannot be conducted in case of infants. In case of older children, this test can be performed. The child has to follow certain steps or perform breathing exercises that help the doctor to confirm if the child has asthma.
The doctor may prescribe certain medications that are safe, and can help alleviate the symptoms. Nebulizer masks are used to administer these medications for effective results. If an infant is diagnosed with asthma, the parents need to take precautionary measures and avoid triggers to reduce the occurrence of wheezing. The child has to be kept away from allergens. Wheezing during feeding or after feeding along with spitting of the food may indicate GERD (regurgitation of the contents of the stomach towards the esophagus) in infants. Chest X-rays, blood tests, RSV antigen test, etc., are some of the diagnostic tests that can help confirm whether the child is affected by bronchiolitis. The treatment basically aims at relieving the symptoms.
On a concluding note, parents must consult a doctor, if their child is making a high-pitched whistling sound while exhaling. Since the immune system of infants is still developing, precautions must be taken so that the child doesn't come in contact with allergens or pathogens.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is solely for educating the reader. It is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a medical expert.