BREATH SOUNDS 101

INTRODUCTION TO BREATH SOUNDS

Breath sounds are sounds that originate from the lungs when we inhale and exhale air. Your doctor can listen to your breath sounds with the aid of a stethoscope.

The lungs can produce two type of breath sounds – abnormal breath sounds and normal sounds. Abnormal breath sounds are an indication of a lung disorder, which includes:

Breath sounds are an important component of medical diagnosis.

breath sounds
Photo Credit: MedlinePlus

TYPES OF BREATH SOUNDS

We have established that there are two types of breath sounds – abnormal and normal. When you breathe normally, the sound will be similar to that of air. On the other hand, abnormal sounds include:

  • Crackles (sound with a high pitch)
  • Stridor (sound that is harsh with a vibratory undertone, usually caused by constriction of the upper airway)
  • Wheezing (a whistling sound, usually high-pitched caused by constriction of the bronchial tubes).
  • Rhonchi (low-pitched breath sound)

Breath sounds are listened to with the help of a stethoscope. Your doctor hears your breath sounds by putting the stethoscope on your rib cage, back, chest, or under your collarbone.

CAUSES OF ABNORMAL BREATH SOUNDS

When the sound of your breathing becomes abnormal, then it may be an indication of a problem with your airway or your lung. Major causes of abnormal breath sounds include:

The sounds described above are caused by several factors:

  • Stridor: This describes the narrowing of the upper airways
  • Wheezing: this happens when your bronchial tubes are narrowed or inflamed
  • Crackles are due to filling of the air sacs with fluid, and movement of air in any of the sacs. Fluid usually fills the air sacs when a person has heart failure or pneumonia
  • Rhonchi: A person is said to suffer rhonchi when air attempts to pass through mucous or fluid-filled bronchial tubes.

CAN BREATH SOUNDS CONSTITUTE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY?

You are advised to seek immediate medical attention, preferably in the ICU if your breathing or that of your loved one suddenly becomes difficult or severe.

An important feature of abnormal breath sounds is cyanosis. This is when the mucous membranes and the skin assumes a bluish tint. Cyanosis is caused by oxygen deficiency. Cyanosis of the face or the lips also constitutes a medical emergency.

Other symptoms that your doctor may observe include:

  • Nasal flaring
  • Stridor
  • Use of the accessory muscle (chest wall muscles and neck muscles in breathing)
  • Abdominal breathing

DIAGNOSIS

An important step towards diagnosing abnormal breath sounds is a review of your medical history. Your doctor will ask questions concerning any past or current medical conditions. He or she will also ask if you are taking any medications currently.

You should disclose to your doctor when the sounds began and what you were doing before the sounds started. Also, inform him or her of any other symptoms that you may be experiencing.

The doctor will ask you to undergo some tests to determine the cause of the abnormal breath sound. Diagnostic tests include:

  • Chest X-ray
  • CT scan
  • Sputum culture
  • Pulmonary function test
  • Blood tests

A pulmonary function test can be used to determine:

  • Your breathing efficiency
  • The volume of air that you inhale and exhale

A sputum culture is used to test for foreign organisms in your mucus. You’ll cough and the sputum will be collected. This sputum is then analyzed in a laboratory.

TREATMENT

Treatment is based on your diagnosis. Your doctor will consider the cause of your symptoms and the severity when creating a treatment plan.

Medications may be prescribed. Their function is mainly to open up your airways or clear the infections. The patient may be hospitalized in severe cases, such as in airway obstruction or edema.

If you have COPD, bronchitis, or asthma, you’ll be given breathing treatments to clear your airways. Asthmatic patients may be given an inhaler for daily use. This will decrease inflammation in the airways and also prevent asthma attacks.

IN CONCLUSION…

Put a call across to the local emergency service if you or a loved one:

  • Find it difficult to breathe
  • Stops breathing
  • Has lip or face cyanosis

Please consult your doctor if you have issues with breathing, like abnormal breath sounds. Disclosing your symptoms to your doctor will help them to diagnose whatever disorder you may have in its early stages.

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