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Wheezing is a high pitched whistling sound that usually happens when your child breathes out. It is usually caused by some kind of blockage in the small airways or bronchioles that carry air in and out of your lungs. The blockage could be narrowing due to inflammation or a build-up of mucus.
Wheezing may be accompanied by other symptoms, which will depend on what is causing the problem. You might notice that your child also has a high temperature, headache, cough, or other symptoms if the cause is an infection. Symptoms such as breathlessness, coughing, or watery eyes could be signs of other issues, such as asthma or an allergy.
Wheezing can have many different causes. It can be a symptom of an infection such as a cold, bronchiolitis or pneumonia, or a sign of a condition such as asthma or cystic fibrosis. Finding out what is causing the wheezing is important as it will determine the right course of treatment. In some cases, wheezing in children under the age of three doesn't have a specific cause. Some children just seem to wheeze for a while at this age. It may be a sign that a child is more likely to develop asthma at a later age, but this isn't always the case.
You should see a doctor if you are concerned about your child's wheezing, especially if you are unable to work out what is causing the problem. If you are sure that the wheezing is just part of a mild infection such as a cold or the flu, you may not need to see a doctor unless the symptoms are severe. Wheezing that is associated with mild, cold-like symptoms that don't seem to affect your child's breathing or general well-being is unlikely to be serious. However, you should seek help if the wheezing is associated with severe symptoms, such as a very high fever, if your child is experiencing breathing difficulties, or if you suspect that your child might have pneumonia. It is also a good idea to seek medical advice if your child has persistent wheezing, as it could be a sign of a chronic condition like asthma or an allergy like hay fever. If a young child suddenly starts to wheeze and cough it could be due to inhaling something into the air passages so it is important to seek urgent medical help.
Wheezing can be a symptom of many different conditions, so the first thing your doctor will need to do is to work out what is wrong. Any other symptoms you have identified can help with the diagnosis, but your doctor may also need to perform a physical examination and to run some tests in order to find out what is wrong. Samples of blood or any mucus that is being coughed up may need to be tested in the lab to look for signs of infection, and your child's lungs may be checked with a breathing test to check for problems like asthma.
Once the cause of wheezing has been identified, the doctor will be able to recommend the best course of treatment. If the cause is a minor infection, you may be able to treat it at home in the same way as a normal cold or the flu. Your child might just need some rest, plenty of fluids, and infant paracetamol or ibuprofen to tackle any other symptoms, such as headaches or joint pain. The same treatments can also work for mild chest infections, bronchiolitis, or pneumonia. However, your doctor may also want to prescribe antibiotics to help clear the infection if it is being caused by bacteria. If the symptoms are very severe and your child is having trouble breathing, he or she may need to be admitted to hospital for additional treatment. This could include having an IV fitted to provide fluids and antibiotics, and a face mask or breathing tube to ensure your child is getting enough oxygen. An inhaler may be given to administer medication to treat wheeze if asthma is diagnosed. Most infections will clear up quickly once your child is getting the right treatment.
If the wheezing is persistent and not associated with an infection, the most likely cause in older children is asthma. Asthma is a long term condition that requires careful management. Your child may need to carry an inhaler to use when their symptoms flare up or to take medication daily to prevent wheezing and other symptoms. You might also need to make some changes at home to reduce exposure to potential asthma triggers such as dust mites and pet hair.
Other conditions can also cause wheezing too. Your doctor may need to run additional tests in order to identify less common causes of wheezing, which may require different kinds of treatment. If your child suffers with recurrent wheezy episodes and does not seem to respond to inhalers then other conditions need to be looked for by a paediatrician respiratory specialist.