Asthma affects the lungs in two ways: inflammation and bronchospasm. Inflammation occurs when the lining of the airways becomes swollen and clogged with mucus and fluid. With bronchospasm, the muscles around the airways tighten and contract as they struggle to keep the airways open.
When scientists are considering ways to treat asthma, they often are trying to address the effect on the lungs. This involves looking for treatment for inflammation and/or bronchospasm. And this is where the question of whether coffee is good for asthma patients comes in. When discussing coffee, what scientists are really looking at is one of the main components of coffee: caffeine.
While many people think of coffee and caffeine together, caffeine is also present in many other things. It is naturally occurring in plants used in coffee, many teas, and chocolate. Caffeine is found in some sodas, energy drinks (often from the guarana plant), some medications and diet supplements. Sometimes it is added to foods. Caffeine is absorbed through our stomach when we eat or drink something, but it can affect other body systems, including the lungs.
How does caffeine help asthma?
According to a study in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Caffeine has a variety of pharmacological effects; it is a weak bronchodilator and it also reduces respiratory muscle fatigue. It is chemically related to the drug theophylline which is used to treat asthma. It has been suggested that caffeine may reduce asthma symptoms and interest has been expressed in its potential role as an asthma treatment.”
It is important to understand the role of caffeine as a bronchodilator in patients with asthma for two main reasons. First, we need to know if caffeine may be used to treat symptoms of asthma. Secondly, we need to understand how caffeine consumption may affect the results of lung tests done by asthma doctors.
Does coffee help asthma symptoms?
Many people ask, “Is coffee good for asthma?” or “Is coffee good or bad for asthma?” The answer is that coffee can be good for asthma, but it is not without some words of caution.
One study found that people who drink coffee every day have 29% fewer asthma symptoms. This same study did not find the same results for people who drink tea, which typically contains much less caffeine.
Also remember that caffeine acts as a mild bronchodilator. So, any caffeinated drinks may offer some bronchodilation. However, the bronchodilator effects may depend on the amount of caffeine in the drink. Caffeine also helps lower respiratory muscle fatigue and can temporarily improve lung function. These are all good things for patients with asthma.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that healthy adults may safely consume up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day. This is equal to four to five cups of coffee per day. Used in safe doses, coffee can be good for asthma.
On the flip side, high amounts of caffeine can be dangerous, even deadly. A toxic amount of caffeine is normally about 1,200 milligrams ingested quickly. There are products, mainly marketed for weight loss, that contain large amounts of caffeine that are very risky. Also, consider that an energy drink may contain up to 250 milligrams of caffeine. If you are drinking several energy drinks in a row, you are getting a lot of caffeine quickly. In large quantities, caffeine poses a risk to asthma patients and non-asthma patients alike.
Some people may find that coffee or tea trigger or worsen symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Most studies have not shown coffee or tea to cause or trigger reflux. However, if you find this is the case for you, it may be best to avoid drinking them as GERD can trigger asthma symptoms.
The other thing to consider when drinking coffee or other caffeinated beverages is what else is in them. Many people don’t drink their coffee black. When adding creamers and flavors or drinking sodas or energy drinks, you may also consume a lot of extra calories. Maintaining a healthy weight is helpful in managing asthma. Avoiding empty calories is an important part of that. If you can’t enjoy a cup of coffee without adding cream or sugar, or you prefer sodas and energy drinks, it’s best to limit your intake.
There are potential side effects of caffeine that some people may find problematic. In high doses you may find yourself jittery, having problems sleeping, having a racing heart, or feeling nauseated. If you are drinking caffeinated drinks, it is best to limit yourself to the FDA’s recommendations.
Lastly, there may be certain medical reasons for avoiding caffeine. Caffeine may have adverse effects for pregnant women, children and adolescents, people with certain mental illnesses, and some cardiac conditions. Caffeine may also interfere with some medications. If you have any chronic health conditions, are pregnant (or lactating), are a child or adolescent, or have other underlying healthy conditions, discuss the safety of caffeine use. Pharmacists are also a great source of knowledge about possible caffeine and medication reactions.
How to use coffee for asthma
You don’t want to rely on caffeine for asthma symptoms. However, studies have found that caffeine may help asthma patients. Caffeine also appears to help the airways function a little better, for up to four hours, in people with asthma. But neither of these suggest that caffeine should be used to treat asthma.
Think of it more like this — coffee should not be treating your asthma, but rather it can be used to supplement your asthma treatment.
Can you use coffee as treatment for an asthma attack?
You should always use your quick-relief inhaler to treat an asthma attack. While caffeine has mild bronchodilator properties, your quick-relief inhaler is more effective. Asthma attacks can be fatal if not treated properly. And they can sneak up on you, so don’t be caught off-guard.
Treatment for asthma must be directed by your physician. Work with your doctor to make sure your Asthma Action Plan is up to date. With adequate asthma management, you may be able to limit the impact of asthma on your quality of life.
Always carry your quick-relief asthma medications with you. And, as always, if your asthma symptoms are out of control or your inhaler is not helping you through an asthma attack, seek medical attention immediately.
Are there other issues to be aware of regarding caffeine and asthma?
Managing asthma includes testing your lung function routinely. Remember, your lung function may improve for up to four hours after drinking coffee. If you do drink it in the hours before testing, it may show better lung function than it actually is. This could cause your doctor to not prescribe the right medications or the right doses to adequately treat your asthma.
The takeaway is — don’t drink caffeine for at least four hours prior to lung function testing to avoid any misinterpretation of the results. Caffeine does not appear to affect the level of exhaled nitric oxide, but more research is needed. A good rule of thumb would be to simply not drink caffeine before seeing your doctor.
Can I use decaf coffee or tea for an asthma emergency?
The term “decaf coffee” is a bit of a misnomer. Studies have found that decaf coffee often does contain a small amount of caffeine. Some decaf teas may also contain trace amounts of caffeine. However, this is likely less than 15 milligrams of caffeine. And when we are talking about treating an asthma emergency with coffee or tea, we are really thinking about caffeine. While drinking a cup of decaf tea or coffee probably won’t hurt you, it isn’t likely to provide much relief, if any. So, as always, make sure to carry your quick-relief inhaler with you at all times.
For coffee lovers, research about coffee and asthma is good news! Moderate amounts of coffee are safe for people living with asthma. And, coffee may actually even be a little good for your asthma.
Remember, coffee or caffeine should never replace your asthma medications. But most people can sip on a delicious cup of coffee without worrying that it will make their asthma worse.