What a Wheezing Cough in Infants Means

When your child coughs, do they make a high-pitched whistling sound? It’s essential to understand what a wheezing cough in infants means. Learn more about the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for this potentially concerning respiratory symptom to ensure your child’s well-being.

When your child is ill, hearing them coughing dryly and wheezing might be distressing. An obstruction produces this high-pitched whistling sound in the lung airways during exhale. It is typically caused by either bronchiolitis or asthma and may frequently be treated at home. Read more about toddler and infant wheezing coughs, as well as how to help your child feel normal again.

Bronchitis-Induced Wheezing Cough

Bronchiolitis occurs when the airways become inflamed and restricted, typically due to a virus that enters the lungs’ small airways. The respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is responsible for the majority of bronchiolitis cases. However, parainfluenza virus and adenovirus may also be to blame. To hear what that wheezing sounds like, watch this video of a newborn with RSV breathing (who thankfully fully recovered).

Bronchiolitis is most prevalent during the winter months, and most patients are under two years old. Children who have never been breastfed, premature infants, males between 2 and 6 months of age, those with lung or heart illness, and those who have never been nursed may be particularly susceptible.

Children acquire bronchiolitis by inhaling contaminated coughs, sneezes, or respiratory droplets expelled by others. Initially, the symptoms resemble a cold, including a stuffy nose, sneezing, and fever. In the later stages, rapid breathing, difficulties exhaling, a wheezing cough, and a decrease in food intake may manifest.

David Rubin, M.D., chief of pediatrics at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, New York, warns that bronchiolitis in infants younger than one-year-old can become life-threatening if not properly treated. This is due to the fact that mucus formation can cause a baby’s sensitive lungs to constrict, which may result in inflammation, lung tissue collapse, and infections such as pneumonia.

Asthma-Related Wheezing Cough

Coughing and wheezing may also be asthma symptoms, a chronic lung condition marked by inflammation and breathing difficulties. The disease is triggered when your child’s airways enlarge due to illness, exercise, dust, or other irritants.

Asthma is uncommon in infants younger than 2 years. Scientists do not fully comprehend the cause, but genetics may play a part. In addition, a child’s risk of having asthma increases if they have eczema or food allergies, or if you have a history of allergies or asthma in your family.

During an attack of asthma, the airways enlarge and spasm, resulting in a wheezing cough. Some possible symptoms include congestion in the chest, tiredness, and shortness of breath. Babies and toddlers with similar symptoms are referred to as having “reactive airway illness” due to the inability of doctors to run asthma testing on them.

Possible Reasons for Coughing Symptoms

Although bronchiolitis and asthma are prominent causes of a dry, wheezing cough, they can also be caused by other conditions. Here are some other causes of a wheezing cough in infants and young children.

Acid Reflux

When the stomach spills stomach contents into the lungs, acid reflux occurs. This can irritate the lungs and throat, causing irritation, discomfort (often referred to as heartburn), and sometimes a wheezing cough.

Other Infections

Infections such as bronchitis, colds, pneumonia, and COVID-19 can also cause a wheezing cough in addition to bronchiolitis. Croup, a viral infection characterized by a barking cough, can also cause a wheezing cough (or may be mistaken for one).

In addition to the wheezing cough, if you observe additional symptoms of illness, such as fever, congestion, body aches, or sore throat, consult your child’s pediatrician to establish the type of infection they have and the most effective treatment.


A stuffy nose due to seasonal or other allergies can also result in a wheezing cough. Allergies can be induced by seasonal variations in pollen or by other irritants like pets, dust, or mold. Despite the fact that it can be difficult to discern between allergies and infections, allergy symptoms are typically confined to the head (such as a stuffy nose and itchy, watery eyes) as opposed to creating full-body symptoms such as fever and body aches.

However, consider that infants and toddlers have small nasal passageways, making them more susceptible to nosebleeds. If you suspect your kid has an allergy, consult his or her doctor to discover the best treatment choices. Allergy testing can determine whether or not your child has an allergy and what he or she is allergic to.

An Obstructed Airway

A food particle or small toy has been caught in the airway. Partly lodged objects (your child can breathe normally) may be dislodged with back pats, and doctors can assist if the object remains lodged. But, if the object is obstructing your infant’s airway and he or she is making throat-grabbing gestures without making sounds, has a pale, blue complexion, and looks to be in distress, remove the object immediately and call 9-1-1.

Other Potential Causes of Wheezing Cough

Contact your doctor if you have a wheezing cough, especially if it is followed by difficulty breathing. If your child is less than four months old or if she exhibits any of the following signs, she may require emergency care.

  • Extreme breathing difficulties.
  • Shallow or fast respiration (50 breaths per minute or more).
  • Bluish or pale complexion.
  • Appearing lethargic.
  • A retraction or sucking action in the stomach.
  • Flaring nostrils.
  • Refusing to drink and dehydration symptoms.
  • Persistent or increasing fever.

Management of Coughing in Infants and Toddlers

The majority of wheezing coughs are treatable at home. In severe cases of bronchiolitis, hospitalization may be necessary to address respiratory distress (with an oxygen tube) or dehydration (with intravenous fluid). Albuterol can be administered as a mist through a face mask in cases of respiratory distress or as a liquid if asthma is suspected. As a long-term asthma treatment, older children may need to take an inhaler.

You should not give your child cough syrup or cough medicine when treating a wheezing cough at home. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, these medications are useless for children under the age of six and dangerous for children under the age of four. Try one of these natural treatments for wheezing cough in infants and toddlers.

  • Provide plenty of fluids to your youngster to prevent dehydration. Also, staying hydrated loosens the mucus in your infant’s respiratory tract.
  • Install a cold mist vaporizer in your child’s room. The additional moisture may alleviate wheezing cough in infants and young children.
  • To open her airways, position your infant in an upright position.
  • Use over-the-counter saline nose drops to alleviate congestion.
  • If your child has a fever, you could administer an acetaminophen medication such as Tylenol. Always consult your physician first.
  • Do not smoke around your children.

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