COPD Lexicon: Lung Sound Terms To Know

So, a part of having COPD is spending time with doctors. They will listen to your lung sounds. So, what are lung sounds? What do they sound like? What do they mean? Here’s some basic terms to know.

Lung sound terminology used in COPD assessments


It’s a device used to listen to heart and lung sounds. It was invented in 1819 by Dr. Rene Laennec.


It’s a term meaning to listen to sounds inside of a person. We use it when referring to listening to lung sounds. The traditional method was to place an ear over the patient’s chest. The modern method is to use a stethoscope.


Your lung sounds are normal. Normal air movement is heard.


Less air movement is heard. It may be normal in the advanced stages of COPD. It may also be heard during asthma attacks and COPD flare-ups. It may indicate bronchospasm. It may be a sign that a bronchodilator (rescue medicine) is needed. It can be given either by an inhaler or nebulizer. Quite often, a doctor will hear increased air movement after rescue medicine is inhaled. This is a classic sign that the medicine worked.


Laennec used his stethoscope to link symptoms and signs observed with what was heard by auscultation. He wrote a book about what he learned. Rhonchi was used to refer to abnormal noises in the lungs. Today, it’s used to describe the sound of air moving through secretions. It’s a low-pitched continuous sound heard when you exhale. It may sound rattly. It may sound coarse. It’s low-pitched because it occurs in your upper airways. It may clear up with a good cough. It may be heard by auscultation. But, it may sometimes be audible, meaning you can hear it even without a stethoscope.


It’s the sound of air moving through a hollow tube. It’s the sound of air moving through narrowed airways. Airways may be narrow due to airway obstructions. These obstructions may be caused when airways spasm, such as during asthma attacks and COPD flare-ups. It’s a high-pitched continuous sound. It’s high-pitched because it occurs in your lower airways. It’s best heard by auscultation. It may clear up when your lungs open up. This can be accomplished by inhaling respiratory medicine, such as albuterol.


It can be described as the sound made when pullng velcro apart. Some describe it as the sound made when you crunch your hair between your fingernails. It can be fine or it can be coarse. It is usually heard when you inhale. It is usually defined as a discontinuous sound. The location and intensity of crackles can help doctors diagnose certain conditions.

Fine inspiratory crackles

This is the sound of air sacs (alveoli) popping open. It’s usually heard in the bases, or lower lung fields. It’s usually heard for just a split second when you first start inhaling. It’s a common lung sound in COPD. It may also be caused by atelectasis or pneumonia.


When air sacs (alveoli) collapse. This occurs when you exhale. When you inhale, a fine crackle may be heard as they pop open. It’s most commonly heard in both bases.


It’s an infection of the lowest airways and alveoli. Pneumonia is most likely caused by a bacteria. It’s may occur in only one lobe of your lungs. An early sign of pneumonia is crackles. So, say a doctor hears crackles in your lower right lobe. This may indicate lower right lobar pneumonia. An x-ray and lab tests may also help diagnose pneumonia.

Coarse inspiratory crackles

They are louder than fine crackles. They may also be described as rhales. It may also be described as a bubbly sound. It’s usually caused by air moving through secretions. For instance, it may be air moving through mucus. It may be air moving through pulmonary edema. Your doctor may order further testing to determine the exact cause, such as an x-ray or lab tests. If it’s in your upper airways it may be sound audible, such as audible gurgling. If in your lower airways, you will probably need a stethoscope to hear it.

What to make of this? So, doctors often use stethoscopes to auscultate lung sounds. Now you know what they are looking for. What they hear can help them diagnose and treat you. If you hear these terms mentioned, now you know what they mean.

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