Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is one of the most common causes of a symptom called wheezing. Wheezing is a high-pitched whistling sound that happens when a person breathes in or out. This symptom happens when the airway passages become tighter and narrowed for some reason. When air passes through these narrowed passages, it vibrates the walls of the airway and causes the whistling noise.1

Wheezing can happen when a person breathes out, which is called exhaling. It can also happen when a person breathes in, which is called inhaling.

What causes wheezing in people with COPD?

People with COPD have airways that are constantly narrowed or blocked in different ways that can cause wheezing, such as:

  • The airways may be inflamed and swollen due to irritation
  • The airways may be clogged with extra mucus

Respiratory infections can also be a cause of wheezing. People with COPD are more likely to have frequent infections in their lungs and respiratory system. This can result in wheezing symptoms until the infection is treated. Breathing in irritants like cigarette smoke or pollution can also be a cause of wheezing for COPD patients, because their lungs are weakened and more likely to be irritated.1,2,3

Wheezing can also happen when a person with COPD has what is called a “bronchospasm.” This happens when the muscles that surround the airways suddenly tighten up. This can narrow the airways and cause wheezing during the spasm.

People with COPD may have wheezing on some days but not others. They can also have wheezing that might come and go throughout the day. The symptom of wheezing often happens around the same time as the symptoms of chest tightness and shortness of breath.

Is wheezing a common symptom of COPD?

The cause of wheezing is some kind of blockage or narrowing of the airways of the lungs. People with COPD have airways that are blocked or “obstructed” because of chronic bronchitis and/or emphysema. For this reason, COPD is a frequent cause of wheezing.1,2

However, wheezing does not always mean that a person has COPD – it is also a very common symptom of asthma. Also, not everyone with COPD will have wheezing symptoms.

Wheezing is more common when a person is exhaling. If a person wheezes only during exhaling, but not inhaling, it means that there is a milder degree of airway blockage or narrowing. It is less common to wheeze both when exhaling and when inhaling. If a person wheezes during both, it means that airways are more seriously narrowed.

Can wheezing be treated?

Many patients with COPD are prescribed medicines called “inhaled bronchodilators” that can be used to control their wheezing symptoms. People with COPD should try to avoid being in places where they must breathe in irritants that cause them to wheeze.2

Can wheezing be a sign of a COPD flare-up?

Increased wheezing, or wheezing that is worse than usual, can be signs that a person with COPD is having an “acute exacerbation.” This is also known as a COPD attack or “flare-up.” COPD patients or their caregivers should contact a healthcare provider for advice if they think that the wheezing might be an early sign of an acute exacerbation.

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Written by: Anna Nicholson | Last reviewed: July 2015.