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Breath sounds: Abnormal breathing and treatment

The normal sounds that people make when they breathe should hardly be noticeable.

However, abnormal breaths may sound strained, and odd noises may come from the lungs when the person inhales or exhales. These sounds are more apparent with a stethoscope, but some are loud enough to hear with the ears.

Abnormal breathing may be a sign of an underlying issue or medical condition. Infections and other conditions that cause inflammation or fluid buildup in the lungs commonly cause unusual breath sounds.

Types of breath sounds

There are several distinct types of abnormal breath sounds, including:

  • Crackles: Also called rales, crackles tend to sound like discontinuous clicking, rattling, or bubbling when the person inhales. Crackling breath sounds may sound wet or dry, and doctors might describe them as either fine or coarse.
  • Wheezing: Wheezing noises are high-pitched and continuous and may sound like a breathy whistle. Sometimes, wheezing can be loud enough to hear without a stethoscope. A squawk is a short version of a wheeze that occurs during inhalation.
  • Rhonchi: Rhonchi are continuous, lower-pitched, rough sounds that many people compare to snoring.
  • Stridor: Stridor is a harsh, high-pitched, wheeze-like sound. It occurs in people who have a blocked upper airway, usually when they are breathing in.

Some abnormal breath sounds may also change the sound of a person’s voice.

A doctor will use a stethoscope to listen to the individual’s lungs and air passages as they breathe. This will help to identify the type of abnormal breath sound and narrow down the potential causes.

Some doctors also use other listening tools, such as computerized lung sound analysis.

They may ask about any medication the person is taking or has taken recently. They may also ask when the symptoms began and if anything relieves or provokes them.

It is likely that a doctor will order other tests, including imaging tests such as a plain film X-ray or CT scan to look at the chest structures. They may also order blood tests to check for signs of underlying conditions.

If an infection is present, sputum testing may be necessary to diagnose the cause of abnormal breath sounds. For this test, a person must cough up some sputum, which a doctor will then send to a laboratory to check for infectious germs.

A pulmonary function test may help doctors determine if the airways are blocked or damaged. The test will measure how much air the person inhales and exhales and will show whether or not their breathing function is normal.

Anyone experiencing continuous abnormal breathing sounds should see a doctor for a proper diagnosis.

Abnormal breathing sounds often indicate common and treatable disorders. However, they may also be a sign of a more severe underlying condition.

In some cases, abnormal breath sounds can be a medical emergency. People should seek immediate medical attention for abnormal breath sounds or breathing difficulties that are sudden or severe.

It is essential to take anyone who is having problems breathing or who has stopped breathing to the emergency room.

In the emergency room, doctors will look for other signs of emergency conditions, such as:

  • bending forward and using the abdominal muscles or neck muscles to assist or force breathing
  • nasal flaring when breathing
  • the skin turning blue, especially in the lips or face
  • stridor, which means that the person has an upper airway blockage and may be choking or having an acute allergic reaction

People should speak to a doctor as soon as they notice abnormal breath sounds. Prompt diagnosis and treatment of the underlying cause will give them the best chance of avoiding further health complications.

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