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Constant coughing? We’ve got your back

According to American Family Physician journal, a cough is the most common illness-related reason for emergency room visits in the U.S., accounting for 4 million emergency room visits per year. It can be hard to tell, though, when a cough is merely a symptom of the common cold or something worse: bronchitis. Bronchitis is a very common lung infection among seniors, marked by congestion and inflammation in the bronchioles (small airways in the lungs). Bronchitis-related coughing usually starts out as a symptom of the common cold, but as the bronchitis progresses, coughing can become constant and turn into wheezing or difficulty breathing. And depending on whether or not the bronchitis is acute or chronic, it can last for months. No caretaker wants to see their loved one suffer through harsh bronchitis symptoms. At DispatchHealth, we’ll come to you to diagnose and treat your elderly loved one’s non-life-threatening case of bronchitis within the comfort of your own home. Skip the ER or urgent care center and let your loved one get the rest they need while we take care of the rest.

If this is an emergency, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department.

Bronchitis symptoms & when to seek treatment

Here’s the thing most caretakers struggle with when it comes to seeking treatment for bronchitis: It looks a whole lot like the flu and the common cold. That’s because it often starts out as the common cold. If other cold symptoms start to ease up but the coughing stays constant (or worsens), it could be a sign of bronchitis. Here are other telltale signs that your senior may have bronchitis:

Most cold symptoms usually last for one to two weeks, but coughing can last for months at a time. Keep in mind that in the earlier stages of bronchitis, coughing could start out very dry, but eventually produce abundant mucus with virtually every cough. That’s why mucus isn’t always the best indicator of bronchitis, since both types of coughs can be bronchitis-related depending on the stage of the illness. Seniors may also experience gagging while coughing. 

You should seek treatment for bronchitis for your loved one if they experience any of the above symptoms, if they have recovered from a cold or the flu but the coughing has persisted, or if they’re having difficulty eating or drinking due to labored breathing. This is especially important if your elderly loved one has risk factors for bronchitis, such as a heart or lung condition.

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:

  • Asthma
  • Allergies
  • 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.

How to prevent bronchitis in seniors

Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do as a caretaker to help keep your loved one from contracting bronchitis:

  • 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