Coughing and the Elderly: Symptoms, Problems, Solutions

Following the pandemic of 2020, a simple and harmless cough became something much more concerning. We’re living in an age where coughing in a public space is as much of a social faux pas as loudly passing wind. In fact, we’re sure that more of you would prefer to let loose in a supermarket aisle than deal with the questionable glares prompted by a careless cough.

The problem is, coughing isn’t always a sign that you have a cold, flu, or COVID-19. In elderly people, sporadic coughing is relatively common and rarely connected to anything serious or infectious.

There are exceptions, though, and regardless of the reason or origins of your cough, it’s something you’ll want to pay close attention to.

Causes of Coughing in the Elderly

A cough is a symptom, not a disease, and it hints at numerous different problems, some serious, some not.

Short Term: Viral Infections

If your cough has come on quickly and is accompanied by other symptoms, such as a runny nose, sore throat, or thick mucus, it could be a sign that you have a viral infection. If the symptoms persist or you develop a fever, you should consult with your doctor as soon as possible.

Cover up, take some hand sanitizer with you, and consult with your doctor. Even if you’re not in the middle of a pandemic or epidemic, it’s still important to practice good hygiene, as it will prevent the infection from spreading to others. We have all witnessed the damage caused by a single careless patient.

Alternatively, speak with your doctor over the phone. They may advise you to stay where you are, isolate, and drink plenty of fluids. Unless you are high-risk or there is reason to believe you have a serious infection, the problem should pass in a few days.

Sporadic: Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

Do you find that you cough a lot after a big meal? If so, the problem could be related to digestive issues associated with GERD, also known as acid reflux. This occurs when the hydrochloric acid leaves your stomach and escapes into your esophagus and your throat.

This can cause heartburn and even scarring. It also triggers an excess of mucus, which is where the coughing comes from. You can treat GERD with numerous medications, but they may not fix this issue.

The best way to manage it is to combine those medications with a cleaner, healthier diet, one that contains a minimal amount of trigger foods. For many, the foods include pastry, butter, cheese, spices, and orange juice, but generally, it’s anything acidic and high in saturated fat.

Caffeine, smoking, and alcohol consumption are also triggers and may worsen the condition.

Chronic Cough: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

In addition to coughing, symptoms of COPD include difficulty breathing, sputum, and wheezing. It’s an inflammatory condition that impacts the lungs and includes emphysema and bronchitis. 

Typically caused by smoking, it also occurs in individuals exposed to other harmful gasses over a prolonged period. COPD cannot be cured but it can be managed with medication and lifestyle changes.

Speak to your doctor about treatment for COPD.

Chronic Cough: Asthma

A cough associated with asthma may react to the weather and your environment, getting worse in the cold air and whenever you are in contact with exhaust fumes, cigarette smoke, perfume, and other harsh chemicals. 

Chronic Cough: Lung Cancer

If you have a cough that persists for several weeks, you should see a doctor, as it may be a sign of something serious and life-threatening. Although most coughs are linked to harmless and easily treated conditions, they could also indicate lung cancer.

Other symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • Wheezing
  • Chest pain
  • Hoarseness
  • Weight loss

If you smoke or have smoked within the last 15 years, you are at risk of developing lung cancer and this may spread to other areas. It’s important, therefore, to get tested as soon as possible. 

Most forms of cancer can be treated if they are caught early.

Chronic Cough: Medications

Some medications, in particular those prescribed for heart disease and high blood pressure, have been known to cause chronic coughs. The issue may be exacerbated in patients who also suffer from GERD and some of the other issues discussed above.

Treatments for Coughs in Elderly Patients

Your first port of call should always be your doctor. They will tell you whether the cough is serious and connected to any treatable disease.

If it’s the result of a bacterial infection, they may prescribe a course of antibiotics. If it’s the result of a viral infection, they will advise rest, fluids, and medications designed to reduce fevers.

It’s important to get the right diagnosis before you start treating yourself, as you may be inadvertently making the situation worse. For instance, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs help with coughs caused by inflammation. However, they tend to exacerbate the symptoms of GERD and if that’s the cause of the coughing, it will only get worse.

Some common treatments for coughs include:

Cough Medications

Most cough medications are available over the counter, but you need to know what you’re looking at. Generally, they fall into one of two groups: expectorants and antitussives.

An expectorant is designed to help you expel mucous. If your cough is phlegmy, as is the case with coughs caused by viral infections, an expectorant may improve recovery time. They will make you cough more, however, and not less.

To stop coughing entirely, you need a cough suppressant. Codeine was previously used for this purpose, but these days it’s more common to see antitussives that use dextromethorphan.

It’s important to remember, however, that coughing is your body’s natural response to expel mucous. Taking a cough suppressant when you have a phlegmy cough may worsen your condition. 

Natural Cough Remedies

Along with OTC medications and prescription medications, there are a few natural remedies that could help you treat a short-term or chronic cough, include:

  • Honey: A great lubricant that is loaded with anti-inflammatory and antibacterial compounds.
  • Mint: Peppermint, spearmint, and wild mint break down mucus, making it easier to expel. These herbs can be consumed in tea form with a little honey.
  • Mallow: Marshmallow treats are so named because they were once made from marshmallow root. Mallow tea was used for centuries to treat coughs and sore throats and while the research is limited, there are signs that it could help with these problems. 
  • Water: Drink lots of water to stay hydrated and keep your throat lubricated. This is especially important if you’re on medications that cause dry mouth.