Name that lung sound


By Tony James

31 Mar 2016

A European task force has reached a consensus on the naming of lung sounds – in 29 languages.

“Auscultation of the lung remains an essential part of physical examination even though its limitations, particularly with regard to communicating subjective findings, are well recognised,” the task force wrote in the European Respiratory Journal.

René Laënnec invented the stethoscope exactly two centuries ago, in 1816.

“While an array of more elaborate and expensive technologies for the diagnosis of chest diseases has emerged over time, auscultation of the lung still provides valuable, immediate and low-cost information to the experienced clinician,” the task force said.

The international team attacked the problem of naming lung sounds by analysing 20 high-quality audiovisual recordings of children and adults with diseases ranging from asthma to pulmonary fibrosis, pleural effusion and radiation pneumonitis.

They confirmed that ‘crackles’ should be used to describe brief, ‘non-musical’ and discontinuous sounds, which can be subdivided as fine or coarse.

‘Wheezes’ are longer, musical and continuous sounds, especially high-pitched whistling or hissing.

Rhonchi refer to low-pitched, continuous sounds.

Together, these encompass the wide range of terms used in the past to describe lung sounds.

Some noises sound a little more exotic in Europe’s many languages. Wheezes, for example, are ‘râles sibilants’ in French, and coarse crackles are ‘grobblasige rasselgeräusche’ in German.

‘Respiratory’ rather than specifically ‘lung’ sounds arise from sources including the mouth, trachea and chest wall. Terms such as grunting, snoring, cough and pleural rub still have a role in explaining these noises to colleagues and recording them in the patient’s notes.

The task force is developing a comprehensive database of respiratory sounds as a reference tool. European Respiratory Society members can access the database online at

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