Crackling While Exhaling

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Crackling when you exhale can be an alarming and unsettling experience – especially as it can be described as a ‘death rattle’ – but could be a sign of various conditions, not all of which are serious. Taking note of crackling when exhaling is recommended, as is getting medical attention to identify the possible causes. Here we will have a look at some of the various things that may be causing the problem to help you self diagnose the problem – but you should still get it checked by a medical professional.

Possible Causes

There are several possible causes of crackling sounds when breathing. For one it might be a symptom of a blockage, or alternatively pneumonia. In the latter case the crackling sound is made by liquid in the lungs.

The fact that the crackling is during exhaling suggests something about the possible cause – were the crackling during inhaling then this might suggest that the problem was caused by asthma, bronchitis or emphysema. With exhaling it is more likely to be pneumonia, other infections or blockage. Crackling on exhaling may also be a result of pulmonary edema.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is an infection that can in some cases be fatal if untreated, which is why it is so important to seek medical attention as soon as you note the sound. If you suspect you may have pneumonia then look out for the other symptoms which include fever, coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain (when breathing in), headache, fatigue, perspiration, and muscle pain. Pneumonia is usually treated through antibiotics along with rest.

Blockage

Where the problem is caused by a blockage this occurs due to a blocked airway or pressure on the outside of the lung. In some cases this can cause ‘atelectasis’ where an entire lung collapses and becomes airless. This blockage could be caused by a foreign body in the air passage (such as something accidentally ingested), diseases that narrow the airways (such as asthma), tumors, mucus plugs and more. Pressure outside the lung meanwhile can be a result of pleural effusion, pneumonia, injury, tumor or scarring of the lung. Treatments for this will include exercise courses, supplemental oxygen, mechanical ventilation, breathing exercises and other measures depending on the severity of the problem.

Pulmonary Edema

Pulmonary edema is characterized by the excessive build up of fluid in the air sacks (alveoli) of the lungs. This can be a result of heart failure, of certain medications, of severe infection or of trauma. In some cases high altitudes can also cause pulmonary edema.

Other symptoms include anxiety, difficulty in breathing, sweating, the feeling of ‘drowning’, gurgling sounds, pale skin, restlessness, wheezing, coughing up blood, confusion and lack of alertness and nasal flaring. This is treated through the use of oxygen and diuretics while the underlying condition is stabilized.

Other Causes

Of course other causes may other things might cause this sound if they are obstructing the air if you breathe through your nose for instance then there is a chance that this is a result of a blockage in the nose (perhaps caused by a cold, or by a deviated septum). Try to identify where the crackling sound is coming from to ascertain whether it may be a problem with your lungs.

In other cases if you feel pain with your crackling then it may be a sign of other conditions such as bronchitis or even lung cancer – and the latter is particularly likely if you have been a smoker or worked with asbestos. Again though these conditions are more likely to be associated with inhalations rather than exhalations, and are also more likely to be associated with pain in the lungs.

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Gary Wickman

15 comments

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  • Having ENT related issues. Allergies are bad this year. Went to ENT after running low grade fever, 99.2 usually, on and off for a few weeks. Nothing new for me, but primary care changed and I guess they don't believe in antibiotics. So I go to ENT as I'm feeling worse. Well, no wonder, I'm running a 103.3! To ER I go. Chest x-ray fine. Blood panel with WBC count, electrolytes, etc, all normal. Cough for last two days. They give IV fluids, Vicodin then Ibuprofen IV. Fever down to 99.9 as I leave. Home. Can't sleep. Notice when I exhale crackling sounds in throat area, maybe near epiglottis… causing me to cough. I have coughed up, after violent coughing sessions, some phlegm, very light yellow if at all. It's so deep I feel like I'm going to throw up when I'm coughing this stuff up.

    Still no appetite second day back from hospital, but forcing myself to eat. Switched from Vicodin to extra strength Tylenol. Not a big fan of opiates. Gives me a rash after on them prolonged periods. Have Tylenol and ibuprofen alternating. So every two hours I take a new dose. Today I had a temp of 96.7. I tried to rest, drink and eat. Back to 97.7, my normal. Then I Overslept my dose by one hour and temp shot up to 101.9. Back down but I have to set alarms every two hours to wake me up (just Vicodin wasn't doing it first day after hospital, I added Ibuprofen and my 103.8 fever finally broke, what a sweat fest). Day two I figured out these crackly sounds were on exhaling. The sounds were there since I went to ENT, so I'm sure it's not serious. If it is just a mucus plug, PLEASE, tell me how to get rid of it!!! I can't sleep.

  • I have an exposure to asbestos during my military service aboard an aircraft carrier from 1968-1972. I am now suffering of shortness of breath, scaring of the lungs and loss of lung function. I also have a crackling sound when inhaling. I first noticed this while lying in bed on my left side. Would like to have your opinion on this matter.

  • Very informative… got me to the doctors… diagnosis early onset pneumonia… strong antibiotics, rest, fluids… slow recovery… very grateful!

  • Little bit of unnecessary fear mongering at the end there. Perhaps a different choice of words other than – with regards to crackling sound being a symptom of lung cancer "the latter is particularly likely if you have been a smoker or have worked with asbestos".

    Really? Can you honestly say it's "particularly likely" that it is lung cancer?

  • The article was very informative and gave me a good idea of what I could be dealing with and what kind of a doctor I should seek for more advice. My mind was put at ease, I don't feel I'm dealing with a health issue that needs immediate attention but I should see someone to get a proper diagnosis. Thank you!

  • This article was very informative and in layman terms. It's a wonderful age we live in that we can find trusted and easy to understand information as to what our symptoms could possibly mean and then make an educated decision to seek medical help. Of course I understand this should never replace seeing a doctor, it's just wonderful to avoid all the hassle and expense to get to a doctor if it's not needed. Very appreciative of all the work that is put into these sites. Thank You, Sharon

Gary Wickman

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