What Does It Mean When Your Lungs Sound Clear?
Whenever you see your doctor, they put a stethoscope on your chest and back and ask you to take a few deep breaths. “Sounds clear,” they say. But what does that mean?
“Breathing generates sounds that can be heard with the stethoscope,” says Adam Wanner, M.D., a pulmonologist with the University of Miami Health System.
This simple test is called auscultation.
“If only normal respiratory sounds generated by the air entering and leaving the lung are heard, this is often called ‘sounds clear,’ which means there are no additional abnormal sounds that might indicate the presence of lung disease.”
The absence of abnormal breathing sounds is good news.
However, it’s still possible that you have an active lung or upper respiratory infection.
Many lung conditions (including minor and major respiratory disease and upper or lower respiratory infections) do not always cause abnormal lung sounds.
If your physician does hear an abnormal respiratory sound, the type of sound detected can help them identify specific lung conditions.
- Wheezing and rhonchi (“musical” sounds) are typical for asthma (bronchial narrowing, excessive airway mucus) and COPD (bronchial narrowing and excessive airway mucus).
- Stridor (a noisy or high-pitched inspiratory sound heard over the windpipe) may indicate upper airway obstruction.
- Rales (clicking, bubbling or rattling sounds) can be signs of pneumonia (an infection that inflames air sacs), pulmonary edema (fluid accumulation in the lungs) and pulmonary fibrosis (scarring of the lung).
- Pleural rub (short, explosive creaking or grating sounds) is indicative of pleurisy (inflammation of the lining of the lungs and chest, a rare finding), accompanying pneumonia or an autoimmune disease such as Lupus.
If your lungs do not sound clear, and your doctor detects an abnormal breathing sound, the next step is to undergo testing to identify the cause.
Digital pulse oximetry is a painless, noninvasive method of measuring the saturation of oxygen in your blood. Lung imaging (such as a chest X-ray or chest CT scan) can help pinpoint the presence of a mass, lung infection, emphysema (COPD), and pulmonary fibrosis. In some cases, your doctor may recommend pulmonary function testing to examine how well your lungs are working. These tests measure lung volume, capacity, rates of flow and gas exchange.
The results of these tests and imaging scans, your medical history, and the presence of other symptoms (like a fever, fatigue, and coughing) may lead to a diagnosis and treatment plan to improve your lung function and health outcomes. Treatments are recommended based on the diagnosis and your overall health condition.
How to maintain your lung health.
“If you have asthma or COPD ( approximately 12% of the world’s population is affected), use your inhaler medications as prescribed,” Dr. Wanner says.
If a chronic condition, like asthma, affects your breathing, speak with your doctor about how best to manage the symptoms and prevent flare-ups. Dr. Wanner also recommends that everyone avoid smoking and vaping, exercise regularly, and get vaccinated.
If you’re concerned about the health of your lungs (including how they sound or feel when you breathe), see your primary care physician or a pulmonologist. If you’re having trouble breathing, seek emergency medical attention.
At UHealth, there are advanced diagnostics and nuclear imaging tests to provide you with a more accurate diagnosis. This means you can start treatment early and even slow lung disease progression. UHealth pulmonologists provide follow-up outpatient (clinic) care for COPD at convenient South Florida locations.
Expert UHealth pulmonologists are studying chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, such as emphysema and antitrypsin deficiency (alpha-1), with ongoing research and clinical trials, so you can trust you’ll get the most innovative COPD care sooner.
To schedule an appointment with a UHealth pulmonologist, call 305-243-6387 or request an appointment online.
Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UHealth’s news service.