Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a group of lung conditions that cause breathing-related difficulties. It can give rise to several different lung sounds.

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COPD can cause a variety of different lung sounds, including rhonchi, wheezing, and crackling.

This article will discuss the types of lung sounds that can occur alongside COPD. It will also look at how healthy breathing sounds and how doctors diagnose COPD.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute notes that COPD can cause a wheezing sound when a person breathes. Wheezing sounds occur due to the vibrations of the narrowed walls of small airways.

COPD causes the small airways to narrow, resulting in whistling sounds as air attempts to travel through the narrow passages during exhalation.

When wheezing is present in the lungs, it manifests as a high pitched whistling sound during expiration.

Crackling, otherwise known as rales, describes a sound in the lungs that resembles a crackling or clicking sound when a person breathes in. According to one 2021 study, crackling sounds are common in COPD.

There are two distinct types of crackling sounds detectable in the lungs: coarse and fine.

Coarse crackles are more typical of COPD and present as prolonged, low pitched sounds. Fine crackles are more high pitched.

The crackling noise stems from air bubbles passing through fluid, such as mucus, in the airways. Coughing occurs as a biological reaction to clear this fluid.

According to one 2018 article, rhonchi are low pitched, continuous gurgling or bubbling sounds that a person might hear when they inhale and exhale.

These breathing sounds point to a buildup of secretions in the upper airways, which can occur with COPD.

Generally, healthy breathing sounds are silent through the mouth.

Doctors may classify normal breathing sounds from the lungs as:

  • Bronchial: These are loud, high pitched, and harsh. They tend to be louder as a person breathes out.
  • Bronchovesicular: These have a mid-range pitch. They are audible as a person breathes in and out.
  • Vesicular sounds: These are soft and low pitched. They tend to be louder as a person breathes in.

A doctor can evaluate these sounds most effectively with a stethoscope, and they will analyze all sounds based on their duration, intensity, pitch, and timing.

Healthy lungs produce sounds emanating from their respective regions.

The most common test for diagnosing COPD is spirometry. This measures how much air a person can breathe in and out of the lungs. It also measures the speed at which a person exhales or completely empties the lungs.

Other tests for COPD may involve chest X-rays or arterial blood gas tests to measure oxygenation in the blood. This latter test will reveal how efficiently the lungs disperse oxygen throughout the body.

Although there is currently no curative treatment available for COPD, there are many treatment options to help relieve the symptoms and reduce the risk of flare-ups.

Some possible treatments include:

  • bronchodilators
  • steroids
  • pulmonary rehabilitation
  • supplemental oxygen
  • surgery
  • clinical trials
  • palliative care, which focuses on treating symptoms, pain, and stress

A person can also try complementary therapies, such as yoga, massage, and acupuncture. Although these will not treat COPD, they may be able to improve the symptoms.

A person should always discuss their treatment options with a doctor.

Learn more about the treatment options for COPD here.

Some other symptoms of COPD may include:

  • shortness of breath
  • ongoing cough
  • chest tightness
  • frequent colds or other respiratory infections, such as the flu

Severe COPD can cause:

  • swelling in the legs, feet, and ankles
  • weight loss
  • lower muscle endurance

A person should contact a doctor if they notice any symptoms of COPD.

They should seek emergency care if they experience:

  • blue or gray fingernails, which indicate low levels of oxygen in the blood
  • a fast heartbeat
  • difficulty catching their breath or talking

A person should also seek immediate help if their recommended treatment is not working.

It is important to contact a doctor any time breathing is difficult or becomes laborious for prolonged periods of time.

COPD can cause a person to experience a variety of lung sounds, which typically include:

  • wheezing
  • crackling
  • rhonchi

If a person notices any of the symptoms of COPD, they should contact a doctor.