What causes bronchitis in seniors?
Bronchitis occurs when the bronchioles, or small airways in the lungs, become infected—usually by a virus. The infection inflames and swells the bronchioles as well as creates mucus in the area, making breathing difficult. Bronchitis is usually caused by the same virus that causes the common cold or another common virus known as the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). According to the Mayo Clinic, outbreaks are more common in winter when people tend to spend more time indoors.
Since bronchitis so closely resembles the common cold and flu, it’s easy for caretakers to neglect to seek treatment for their loved one’s bronchitis, writing it off as a cold symptom.
Bronchitis can also be caused by environmental factors like allergens, dust, tobacco smoke, strong fumes, and bacteria. It’s very contagious, too. It can be contracted through the air when someone with bronchitis coughs, talks, or sneezes. You can also catch it by sharing food or utensils with someone who’s infected.
It’s important to consider risk factors, too. Some seniors are at higher risk for developing bronchitis, including those who have:
- Chronic sinusitis
- Enlarged tonsils/adenoids
Seniors who smoke or live in homes where others smoke are at a higher risk of developing bronchitis, as well.
- Keep an eye on that cold or flu. As your elderly loved one begins to recover from a cold or bout of the flu, keep an eye on symptoms that seem to stick. Since bronchitis is often caused by cold- and flu-causing viruses, symptoms can overlap—a common cold can even lead to bronchitis. If you notice bronchitis symptoms continuing past the point that a cold or flu clears up, it could mean that bronchitis has taken hold and it’s time to seek medical treatment.
- Encourage your loved one to quit smoking (and quit smoking yourself). Smoking increases the risk of contracting bronchitis, since it weakens the lungs and respiratory tract. Additionally, seniors who live in households where others smoke are at a higher risk of developing bronchitis, along with a number of other health issues, including respiratory infections, ear infections, and asthma attacks. Take your smoke breaks outdoors to keep the home safe and smoke-free. Or, better yet, quit.
- Encourage good hygiene. Your loved one can catch bronchitis easily from others at a senior center or assisted living facility. Shared objects, doorknobs, bathrooms, and even someone else’s sneeze can all cause your loved one to catch bronchitis. This is why it’s essential to teach good hygiene habits, even in old age. Remind your loved one of the importance of washing their hands before and after meals and after using the restroom. Tell your loved one to avoid others who are sneezing or coughing, too.
If left untreated
Most people make a full recovery from bronchitis if treated by a medical professional. If left untreated, however, bronchitis can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is the top reason for hospitalization besides women giving birth, so you should do everything you can to keep your elderly loved one from contracting this difficult illness.
Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to seek diagnosis and treatment for bronchitis in seniors. Gone are the days when you’d have to drag your loved one to an urgent care or emergency room only to spend hours in a germy, cramped waiting room. Today, you can request in-home care from qualified medical professionals at DispatchHealth without requiring your elderly loved one to leave their bed. We’ll be there within a couple of hours, and we accept most major insurance carriers, including Medicare and Medicaid. We also offer an affordable flat rate for uninsured patients. Our medical services cost one-tenth the cost of the average emergency room visit, and we’re available seven days a week, including holidays. Get in touch with us today via our website, a phone call, or our app to request the in-home care for bronchitis your elderly loved one needs today.
Medically reviewed by Dr. Phil Mitchell MD, MS on October 3rd, 2019