StatPearls reports that cough is one of the most common medical conditions in the world.
In fact, coughing is responsible for about thirty million clinical visits per year in the United States. And while the occasional cough is normal, as it expels irritants from the lungs, a persistent cough that lingers for more than eight weeks is a health concern that needs to be taken seriously. This type of cough is considered to be “chronic” by health professionals, and it often occurs as a result of an underlying medical condition.
Cough is particularly problematic for the senior population. Older members of our society are often at higher risk for serious illness, and even a seemingly minor health issue can have devastating consequences for them.
Let’s dive into the causes and symptoms of cough in seniors. Then, we’ll take a look at some of the treatments that can help with this all-too-common condition.
Symptoms of Cough and Cough-Related Disease in Seniors
Coughs can result in many different symptoms, such as a stuffy nose, shortness of breath, wheezing, sore throat, hoarse voice, and heartburn. In many cases, you may even feel mucus dripping down the back of your throat. In rare and severe cases, coughs may even produce blood.
Chronic coughs can impact the overall quality of life. As explained in a previous post on the Hyfe Blog, chronic coughs disrupt sleep, which can cause physical exhaustion, headaches, and abdominal pain. In addition, as an older person, you are already more vulnerable to insomnia because your body produces less melatonin, and these effects can be amplified if they aren’t monitored closely.
Causes of Cough and Respiratory Infections in Seniors
Here is an overview of some of the major causes of coughs in seniors:
- Postnasal drip – This is when your sinuses produce extra mucus, which then drips down the back of your throat into your lungs and needs to be expelled by coughing.
- Asthma – Asthma is a scary condition that can leave you short of breath and wheezing in response to a trigger. Triggers may be due to environmental irritants, exercise, or other causes.
- Acid reflux – A condition that causes extreme discomfort, acid reflux makes anyone with it think twice before having seconds of a spicy, gut-irritating dish! Due to the stomach being positioned just underneath the lungs, irritation from acid reflux can cause coughing.
- Respiratory infections – In general, respiratory infections include afflictions such as the flu, the common cold, and pneumonia. These are more common as you get older.
- Maintenance drugs – Maintenance drugs refer to those medications that are taken regularly, such as those for high blood pressure. Some may have side effects that include coughing.
- Inhaling an object – When something “goes down the wrong way” and you breathe in an irritant that should have been swallowed, your body will cough to expel it. If the object (food, saliva, or stomach contents) cannot be expelled, you will continue coughing. At this point, choking is a serious risk
Although rare, a chronic cough can also arise from more serious medical conditions like cystic fibrosis. Patients who have a diagnosed medical condition, or believe they may be developing one and that their cough resulted from said disease, may be advised by their doctor to get an X-ray or CT scan to obtain a more accurate diagnosis.
Treating a Cough
The specific treatment for a chronic cough will depend on its cause. For instance, if you have acid reflux, you might be prescribed medication to neutralize the acid production. But if the cause of the cough is fungal or bacterial, you will need to take antibiotics for it instead.
Otherwise, your doctor might prescribe specific cough medications, such as antihistamines, corticosteroids, and antibiotics to clear the respiratory tract.
Non-Medicinal Treatments of Cough
While medication may be necessary for many coughs, some natural cures bear consideration.
Natural Treatment of Wet Coughs
For instance, mild coughs caused by irritation and mucus build-up often respond well to simple warm water or a tea drink.
This also may help with any cough-related chest discomfort the patient may be experiencing.
Natural Treatment of Dry Coughs
On the other hand, dry coughs will generally respond well to increased moisture in the air. This can be easily accomplished through the use of a humidifier, by regularly spending time leaning over a bowl of hot water with a towel covering your head and the bowl, or spending time in a warm, steamy shower.
Preventing Diseases and Infections in Older People
Thus far, we’ve discussed treatments for coughs and related infections at length. However, we haven’t discussed much in terms of prevention.
Preventing disease often comes down to a few basic things:
- Practicing good hygiene – Washing hands before and after eating is perhaps the most basic advice anyone could give, but it’s also one of the most useful tips. No one needs to be obsessive about their hygiene, but simple, tried-and-true methods work well for preventing disease.
- Exercising – The ACSM recommends that all adults achieve 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise or physical activity a week. This includes walking fast enough to get out of breath, cycling, and swimming. In addition, everyone should strive to perform some flexibility and resistance training a few times a week as well. This could include stretching, yoga, pilates, and weight lifting.
- Eating a healthy diet – While there are many different thoughts about what constitutes a healthy diet, most health professionals agree that our plates should be filled with veggies, whole grains, high-quality protein, and plenty of fiber-rich foods.
Accessing Health Care as a Senior
Because the focus of this article is on cough in seniors, it would behoove us to discuss the issue of eldercare. Unfortunately, eldercare isn’t cheap and as an older person, you may feel you cannot afford good healthcare. However, there are ways to navigate this concern.
In the U.S., patients can apply for federal health insurance. They’ll need to look for a local Medicare provider that can offer a plan suitable for their particular treatment needs. The following section may also apply to your situation if you are living in the U.S.
A Few Examples of Care Providers
In Colorado, Catalyst offers basic Medicare coverage for local seniors, including sometimes funding your trips to the clinic. Similarly, Kelsey Care offers several Medicare plans in Texas, including “Rx Select,” which offers Part D. Part D helps cover the cost of prescription drugs. So, if a doctor advises you to take a prescription cough medicine, this can help reduce the costs. Generally, if you are looking for a Medicare health provider, a good place to start is the government’s Medicare website.
Patients can also investigate local healthcare organizations that offer programs for anyone over the age of sixty-five. For example, the Area Agency on Aging in Oregon provides long-term medical care to seniors, including “disease prevention” coverage, which could help pay for visits to the clinic and medication.
Patients can also check out more organizations offering Medicare coverage here.
Cough is one of the most common medical conditions in the world. Despite that, not every chronic cough needs treatment with medication. If a particular cough is due to mucus build-up in the throat, drinking warm water may resolve the issue. For dry coughs, increasing the moisture content in the air through the use of a cool-mist humidifier might be just what the doctor ordered.
Although it is not always possible to treat a chronic cough completely, there are many methods by which you can prevent the symptoms and manage the condition. You should always start by asking your doctor about what could be causing the cough and the appropriate treatment options. Then, you can work with your doctors and use reliable online sources (written, edited, and reviewed by healthcare professionals) such as Medscape and Mayo Clinic to decide on the best treatment for your symptoms.
You can also use the Hyfe app to track their cough dynamics and share their findings with a licensed physician. Your doctor can then advise you if you can continue to treat the cough at home or if you need to head to a clinic for more tests.