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What You Need to Know About Preventing and Treating Bronchitis in the Elderly

By Joe CarneyApril 25, 2022
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Bronchitis is an inflammation of the airways to the lungs (bronchial tubes) that often causes a wet cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, fatigue, and a mild fever. Bronchitis can show up in two different forms: acute and chronic.

Acute bronchitis usually develops after a cold or a bout of the flu. Elderly acute bronchitis patients can have a residual cough for a few weeks, but it often improves in about 10 days. Inhaling environmental irritants, like smoke and dust, can also cause acute bronchitis.

Chronic bronchitis is generally more serious and is most commonly caused by cigarette smoking. Patients with chronic bronchitis can have episodes of wet coughs for three months or longer, and episodes can recur for multiple years. Patients can also experience bouts of intensified symptoms, which can create a case of acute bronchitis on top of their chronic condition.

Read on to learn about bronchitis in the elderly, ways to prevent it, and how to treat it depending on your loved one’s condition.

In this article:

Bronchitis in the elderly

People over 65 are at a greater risk for bronchitis complications due to weakened immune systems, underlying health issues, and decades of wear and tear on the lungs.

Bronchitis complications in seniors

These age-related risk factors make it more difficult for seniors to clear bronchitis and fight off the infection. Chronic cases of bronchitis can then lead to complications from a prolonged cough, causing further damage to the lungs.

Some complications of chronic bronchitis in seniors include the following:

  • Pneumonia is a respiratory infection that causes inflammation in the lungs.
  • Emphysema is damaged or enlarged air sacs in the lungs that cause severe shortness of breath.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) isinflamed lungs that obstruct airflow.

How to prevent bronchitis

Minimizing exposure to air pollutants (cigarette smoke, dust, fumes, etc.) and avoiding the flu are two of the most important ways to prevent bronchitis in seniors.

Here are some other specific ways to prevent bronchitis in the elderly:

  • Minimize smoking.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Get a yearly flu vaccine.
  • Wear face coverings in dusty or fume-filled environments.
  • Practice good hand hygiene, like washing and sanitizing.

Causes of lung damage

As mentioned above, decades of normal wear and tear on the lungs increases seniors’ risk of developing complications from bronchitis. But a lifetime of exposure to lung-damaging risk factors puts seniors at an even greater risk of developing complications.

Lung-damaging risk factors to keep in mind include the following:

  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Dust exposure
  • Exposure to workplace air pollutants, like fumes and gases
  • Frequent infections
  • Heavy alcohol use

How to treat bronchitis

If your loved one has bronchitis, be proactive and talk to their doctor. They can outline steps to keep your loved one’s airways clear to prevent their symptoms from getting worse. It’s particularly important to seek medical attention if your loved one has underlying conditions, such as heart disease.

For most people, acute bronchitis will improve or resolve within a couple of weeks. Acute bronchitis will not typically need hospital treatment, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Antibiotics are prescribed to 60% to 80% of acute bronchitis patients. But because up to 90% of acute bronchitis cases are caused by viruses, antibiotics are ineffective for the majority of bronchitis cases. However, bacteria can sometimes cause bronchitis, particularly if the patient has other underlying conditions. Antibiotics may then be able to help in the case of bacterial bronchitis.

Here are some ways to manage bronchitis symptoms in seniors:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day and eating liquid foods.
  • Use cough suppressants, if recommended by a doctor.
  • Use a humidifier.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers to alleviate body aches and reduce fever.

Treatments for chronic bronchitis in elderly patients

Seniors with chronic bronchitis may require regular, more intensive treatments to manage severe symptoms, minimize lung damage from coughing, and prevent hypoxemia (low oxygen levels in the bloodstream). Treatments for chronic bronchitis in the elderly vary depending on the patient’s condition.

Some treatments for chronic bronchitis include the following:

  • Bronchodilator and steroid inhalers
  • Oral medications that open airways and clear mucus
  • Supplemental oxygen from portable oxygen containers (POCs)
  • Lung volume reduction surgery (LVRS) to remove damaged parts of the lungs
  • Humidifier use
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation

In rare and extreme cases, seniors with chronic bronchitis may need lung transplants instead of LVRS. If your loved one requires either of these treatments, their medical team will explain the pros and cons of both options, given your loved one’s condition, and can help you and your loved one decide on the best treatment options.

When to seek medical treatment

Monitor your loved one’s symptoms and seek help if their symptoms get worse. Senior bronchitis patients should receive medical attention if they experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Coughing up blood
  • Breathlessness or severe shortness of breath
  • Bluing lips, fingernails, or areas of skin
  • Chest pain
  • High fever
  • A strong cough that lasts over two weeks

How A Place for Mom can help

Contact one of A Place for Mom’s local senior living experts if your loved one is recovering from a recent medical procedure related to chronic bronchitis. At no cost to you, they can guide you through the benefits of senior rehabilitation centers and nursing homes to accommodate your loved one’s recovery needs. Over the last two decades, our Senior Living Advisors have helped hundreds of thousands of families find care for their senior loved ones.


Cleveland Clinic. (2019, August 12). Bronchitis.

Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2022). Acute bronchitis.

Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2022). Chronic Bronchitis.

Kent, B. D., Mitchell, P. D., &  McNicholas, W. T. (2011, March 14). Hypoxemia in patients with COPD: cause, effects, and disease progressionInternational Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. Dovepress.

Mayo Clinic. (2017, April 11). Bronchitis.

MedlinePlus. (2017, January 2). Acute bronchitis.

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2022, March 24). Bronchitis.

Wellbery, C. (2005, April 15). Prescribing antibiotics for bronchitis in older patientsAmerican Family Physician.

Worrall, G. (2008, February). Acute bronchitisCanadian Family Physician.

The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical advice or diagnosis. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider regarding any medical condition or treatment, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay treatment based on anything you have read on this site. Links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader; A Place for Mom does not endorse the contents of the third-party sites.

Joe Carney

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