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Wheezing illnesses other than asthma in children

Khoulood Fakhoury, MD
Section Editor
Gregory Redding, MD
Deputy Editor
Elizabeth TePas, MD, MS


Wheezing is a common presenting symptom of respiratory disease in children. A nationwide survey in the United States between 1988 and 1994 showed that the prevalence for wheezing amongst two to three year olds was 26 percent and amongst 9 to 11 year olds was 13 percent [1]. A wide range of prevalence of wheeze is observed between and within countries over time. Between 1994 to 1996, for example, the United Kingdom had the highest recorded prevalence of wheezing (31 percent) and Ethiopia the lowest (1.7 percent) [2].

Wheezing can be divided clinically according to the acuity of its onset and the mechanism of airway narrowing. In addition to asthma, new-onset acute wheezing suggests infection or sudden airway obstruction, whereas chronic or recurrent wheezing may be caused by congenital abnormalities, cardiac disease, aspiration syndromes, impaired immunologic defenses, or underlying pulmonary disease.

One in three children experience at least one acute wheezing illness before the age of three years [3,4]. Most infants and young children with recurrent wheezing probably have asthma. However, a wide variety of congenital and acquired conditions can cause narrowing of the extrathoracic or intrathoracic airways and may present with wheezing (table 1). An overview of the causes of nonasthmatic wheezing in children is presented in this topic review.

A diagnostic approach to wheezing, including the definition and physiology of wheezing, and an overview of the diagnosis and management of asthma are presented separately. The emergent evaluation of children with acute respiratory distress is also discussed separately. (See "Approach to wheezing in infants and children" and "Asthma in children younger than 12 years: Initial evaluation and diagnosis" and "An overview of asthma management" and "Acute respiratory distress in children: Emergency evaluation and initial stabilization".)


In addition to asthma, acute onset of wheezing in a child is most often caused by an infectious process or foreign body aspiration (FBA).


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Literature review current through: May 2017. | This topic last updated: Nov 18, 2015.
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