Bronchitis in the Elderly: How You Can Help Prevent It

Bronchitis in the Elderly

As people age, so do their lungs. For the elderly, illnesses involving the lungs can quickly turn into an emergency. Diseases like bronchitis can result in difficulty breathing and lung damage.

What is Bronchitis?

The bronchioles are tubes within the lungs that carry air. When these tubes become inflamed or are blocked with mucus, bronchitis occurs. People with bronchitis typically cough up discolored mucus and may have difficulty breathing. Children and adults who have bronchitis usually do not have severe complications. Infants and the elderly, on the other hand, may have trouble recovering or experience complications. (1)

What are the Types of Bronchitis?

About 95% of all cases of bronchitis result from a viral infection. There are two primary types of bronchitis, chronic bronchitis, and acute bronchitis. (1)

Acute Bronchitis

Acute bronchitis, also referred to as short-term bronchitis or a “chest cold,” is typically caused by a virus infection. Most cases of acute bronchitis are caused by a cold or flu. More common than chronic bronchitis, acute bronchitis may last for ten days or a few weeks. Acute bronchitis symptoms usually resolve on their own, without antibiotics. (2)(3)

Chronic Bronchitis (Also Known As Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)

Chronic bronchitis is an ongoing cough that persists for a few months out of the year over two or more years in a row. In the case of chronic bronchitis, the bronchioles are constantly swollen and mucus-filled.

Most cases of chronic bronchitis are part of an illness called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, more commonly known as COPD. COPD may develop due to respiratory infection or exposure to tobacco or other substances. With COPD, the swelling and mucus can make breathing challenging. (1)

What Causes Bronchitis in the Elderly

Older adults are at an increased risk for developing both types of bronchitis. What’s more, individuals with a history of smoking or asthma are also more prone to developing either type of bronchitis.

Although most cases of acute bronchitis occur because of a virus — like the cold or flu — and resolve when infection ends, complications may develop in people who are older in age. The risk is also higher for individuals who:

  • Smoke or are exposed to secondhand smoke
  • Have a history of childhood respiratory diseases
  • Have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Exposure to air pollutants or toxic fumes
  • Have a compromised immune system

Bronchitis Symptoms & When to Seek Treatment and Medical Care

Symptoms of both acute and chronic bronchitis in the elderly may show: (4)

  • Shortness of breath
  • A productive cough with clear, white, green, or yellow sputum
  • Chest congestion
  • Wheezing or whistling sound while breathing

For acute bronchitis, the symptoms may show as:(4)

  • Fatigue
  • Low fever
  • Body aches
  • Chills
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat

Symptoms of acute bronchitis can linger for a few weeks. However, if symptoms lasting longer than a few weeks may warrant a visit to the doctor and/or emergency medical services.

How Can I Treat Bronchitis?

Although acute bronchitis usually resolves independently, the elderly have a more challenging time overcoming illness. Although rare, a doctor may prescribe an antibiotic for a bacterial infection. A doctor may also prescribe an inhaler or oxygen for shortness of breath. In some cases, a doctor may prescribe pulmonary rehabilitation to strengthen the lungs.

Older adults have more difficulty fighting off infections; bronchitis must be monitored closely. Home treatments for acute bronchitis include rest, over-the-counter pain relievers, humidifiers to loosen mucus, and cough medicines.

Bronchitis versus Pneumonia

Bronchitis and pneumonia have similar symptoms, but their causes are distinctly different. Because a virus typically causes bronchitis, antibiotics aren’t the first line of treatment. Pneumonia, however, is caused by bacteria, and treatment usually includes antibiotics. In cases of pneumonia, fluid can fill the lung quickly, and fevers are higher than acute bronchitis. Adults over 65 require prompt medical care in cases of pneumonia. (5)

How to Prevent Bronchitis in Seniors

The best way to avoid complications from bronchitis is to prevent it. Prevention starts with keeping the lungs clear and avoiding irritants like smoke, dust, and toxins. Older adults who smoke should reduce their smoking or quit. Homes should be kept free of dust and strong artificial air fresheners.

Preventing infections also helps to avoid bronchitis. Older adults need their yearly flu shots, pneumococcal shots, and routine doctor appointments. Because millions of people catch the seasonal flu each year, elderly individuals are especially vulnerable to being infected and suffering complications from a bout of influenza. The flu is a respiratory infection and can be severe or even life-threatening in seniors.

The Importance of Handwashing

To avoid infection, caregivers and older adults should wash their hands frequently and practice good hand hygiene. According to the CDC,“You can help yourself and your loved ones stay healthy by washing your hands often.” Hand washing can significantly reduce the amount of microbes that could infect an individual.

Viruses and bacteria can spread whenever an individual does the following without washing hands:

  • Touches their eyes or nose.
  • Touches contaminated surfaces.
  • Blows their nose, sneezes, or coughs, and then touches others or objects.

To halt the spread of germs, caregivers and older adults would wash their hands:( 6)

  • Before and throughput food preparation
  • Before and after eating or serving any food
  • Before and after caring for an individual who is ill.
  • Before and after treating a wound.
  • After using the restroom.
  • After sneezing or coughing.
  • After touching waste or garbage.

When to Get Help

When caring for seniors with bronchitis, it’s best to seek treatment as soon as possible. (7)

Call a doctor if your loved one:

  • Appears dehydrated
  • Has difficulty breathing
  • Is breathing fast
  • Has a fever lasting longer than 4 days
  • Has a fever or cough that improves but return repeatedly or worsens

Call emergency for:

  • Temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • Shortness of breath
  • Symptoms lasting for weeks
  • Symptoms that recur

In Conclusion

Older adults are very susceptible to both types of bronchitis; therefore, prevention is the key to keeping them safe. Although the disease isn’t 100% preventable, loved ones and older adults can take steps to reduce how contagious it becomes.

Yearly flu vaccinations, obtaining a pneumococcal vaccine, and maintaining hand hygiene are some of the ways to prevent acute bronchitis. Stopping smoking and avoiding pollutants can also go a long way to keeping lungs healthy.

Elite Care at Home is a premier home health provider with a knowledgeable staff who can help prevent, identify, and take action if bronchitis is suspected. Contact us if you have questions about assisted living care and caring for your loved one.


1. Mayo Clinic

2. National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute

3. CDC

4. MedScape

5. Cleveland Clinic

6. CDC