People affected by allergies may experience a whistling sound when they breathe, called wheezing. But why do allergies cause wheezing and what treatments are available?

When someone has an allergic reaction, their throat may tighten causing breathing to be labored. This can lead to a high-pitched noise when the person breathes in and out.

In this article, we explore the causes, diagnosis, and ways to treat wheezing caused by allergies, allergic asthma, and anaphylactic shock.

Fast facts on allergy wheezing

  • Allergy wheezing is a physical symptom that people experience during an allergic reaction.
  • For most people with allergies, allergic reactions cause mild irritation – and any wheezing is short-lived.
  • When someone is experiencing wheezing, a doctor can help determine the cause.
  • Treatment depends on the specific allergy and may include medication.

Wheezing can have a range of causes, it is important to identify the correct cause to receive the right treatment. Potential causes include:

Allergic reactions

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Pollen is an allergen that can commonly cause wheezing.

An allergic reaction is how the body responds when it comes into contact with a substance, or allergen it mistakes as harmful. Allergic reactions can cause symptoms in different parts of the body, including the:

  • nose
  • throat
  • ears
  • eyes
  • lungs
  • stomach lining
  • skin

Examples of allergens that can cause wheezing include:

  • pollen
  • dust
  • pet hair
  • certain foods
  • Insect stings
  • medications

Inflammation of the airways

When the body detects an allergen, it views it as a foreign body and tries to reject it. It does this by producing antibodies and histamine to attack the allergen. Histamine causes a person’s airways to become inflamed and produce mucus.

As a result, the airways become narrower. When a person breathes in and out through narrowed airways, air is forced through a smaller space, which causes a whistling sound. This is the distinctive wheezing sound.

Though typically short-lived, some people experience symptoms that are more serious or more long-term.

Allergy wheezing symptoms

The main symptom of allergy wheezing is the wheezing sound itself. Some people describe the sound as a high-pitch musical, whistling, or squeaky noise.

Wheezing is most noticeable when a person breathes in, but can sometimes be heard when they breathe out too. Some people may experience a feeling of discomfort in their throat and chest.

Anaphylactic shock symptoms

People with more serious allergies can have a severe allergic reaction called an anaphylactic shock. If this happens, people should seek medical assistance straight away.

If wheezing is accompanied by any of the following, this could be a sign of an anaphylactic shock:

  • difficulty breathing
  • rapid breathing
  • bluish skin color
  • swelling of the face or lips

Allergic asthma symptoms

Not everyone who experiences allergy wheezing has allergic asthma. However, many people with asthma will have attacks that are triggered by allergens. In fact, allergic asthma is the most common type of asthma, affecting about 60 percent of those with the condition.

Allergen induced asthma is a long-term condition. Allergic asthma attacks have some key features that are similar to those of an allergic reaction; but as well as the wheezing, people with allergic asthma attack experience additional symptoms. These include:

  • coughing
  • shortness of breath
  • rapid breathing
  • chest tightness

Symptoms of other underlying conditions

Wheezing is usually a response to allergens or a symptom of allergic asthma. However, wheezing can also be a sign of an underlying health condition, such as lung disease.

If a person has no history of allergies or diagnosis of allergic asthma, then wheezing may be a cause for concern. People should speak to the doctor if they:

  • experience wheezing for the first time
  • experience recurrent wheezing
  • have pain while breathing

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To diagnose allergy wheezing, a pulmonary test may be performed by a doctor.

Doctors first perform a physical exam, which helps to rule out underlying health conditions.

Next, a doctor will test lung function, by measuring how much air moves in and out when a person breathes. These are called pulmonary tests. The doctor may give a person a drug called a bronchodilator to open up their airways. This helps them to assess lung function better.

If the cause is of wheezing is not established by these initial tests, the doctor may perform some additional tests such as:

  • administering specific drugs that trigger asthma
  • measuring nitric oxide in a person’s breath to determine if their airways are inflamed
  • giving the person a chest X-ray or CT scan
  • performing skin and blood tests for specific allergies

If tests reveal asthma may be the cause of wheezing, a doctor will ask further questions about how often a person experiences the symptoms. These questions help the doctor judge the severity of the condition.

Treatment for wheezing depends on whether it is caused by:

  • seasonal or environmental allergies
  • allergic asthma
  • anaphylactic shock

Seasonal or environmental allergy treatments

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Allergy wheezing may occur during an allergic reaction.

Wheezing caused by reactions to different seasonal or environments allergens each have specific treatments. These include:

  • Pollen – a reaction to pollen is known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis. This is very common, affecting nearly 8 percent of adults in the United States. Typical treatments include antihistamines and steroid nasal sprays or tablets.
  • Dust – dust mites usually trigger dust allergies. The best way to treat wheezing as a result of dust mites is to remove the allergen. This involves cleaning carpets and furnishings and reducing household humidity.
  • Pet hair – the saliva, dander (skin flakes), and urine that gathers when pets shed their hair can cause allergies. As with dust mites, removing the allergen is the best way to treat pet hair allergies. Regular vacuum cleaning can help.
  • Certain foods – if an allergy to food causes wheezing, then a nutritionist can determine which food is responsible for causing the allergy. They will usually recommend that a person cut this food out of their diet.

Allergic asthma treatments

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology, most people with asthma respond best to a combination of two types of treatment. These are:

  • Quick relief medicines that expand the airways, including inhaled beta-2agonists and anticholinergics.
  • Long-acting drugs to prevent symptoms, such as oral corticosteroids and immunomodulators that a person takes every day.

If allergic asthma causes a person to wheeze, then their doctor will work with them to find the best combination of these treatments.

Anaphylactic shock treatments

When someone experiences wheezing as part of an anaphylactic shock, they will require emergency treatment. If the person has a known allergy, they may be carrying an adrenaline auto-injector. This should be used to administer an injection.

Before first aiders arrive, it is important to:

  • lay the person down
  • administer an injection with an auto-injector if there is one
  • remove the allergen

If the person does not have an auto-injector, a first aider will give them an adrenaline shot when they arrive.