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The effects of coffee on asthma.

The Effects of Coffee on Asthma

I rarely ever drank coffee until I was 40. Then, for some inexplicable reason, I became a coffee fiend, drinking 6-7 cups of coffee every day. Then I quit cold turkey. As I sit here today, sipping on a hot tea, I wonder: what effect, if any, does coffee have on asthma?

As a kid I learned that coffee was once used as an asthma remedy.
Sometimes, in desperation (and when my parents weren’t looking) I’d pour some coffee grounds in a cup of cold water and slam it down. It never worked to end my asthma attacks. That’s not to say that it wouldn’t work for other asthmatics, as my asthma was diagnosed as severe.

The bronchodilatory effects of caffeine

In 2010, I started writing about asthma’s history. This was when I was introduced to Dr. Henry Hyde Salter. He was the doctor of Teddy Roosevelt during the 1870’s when the former President was a child asthmatic. He (Dr. Salter, that is) wrote a book called, “On Asthma.” It was the most well-respected book on asthma during the second half of the 19th century. So, whatever Dr. Salter believed about asthma became the gold standard.

He had many theories about asthma, the most famous of which was that asthma was a nervous disorder. He also believed that asthma was brought on by sleep. He had already heard about coffee as an asthma remedy from his many asthma patients. He speculated that it worked for asthma because of its stimulant effect. He wrote:

“For, what are the physiological effects of coffee? They consist in the production of a state of mental activity and vivacity, of acuteness of perception and energy of volition, well known to those who have experienced it, and to a certain extent very pleasurable, and which is the very reverse of that abeyance of will and perception which, in drowsiness or sleep, so favors the development of asthma.”1

Considerations for effectiveness

Dr. Salter further explained that coffee, as a remedy for asthma, should be served hot, black, and not too strong.

About a hundred sixty years after Dr. Salter’s book was published, a review of studies was performed to see if coffee had any true impact on lung function and asthma. The authors wrote:

“Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, cola drinks and cocoa. Caffeine is a drug that is very similar to theophylline. Theophylline is a bronchodilator drug that is taken to open up the airways in the lungs and therefore relieve the symptoms of asthma, such as wheezing, coughing and breathlessness. Scientists are interested in finding out whether caffeine has the same effect on the lungs as theophylline.”2

And they concluded:

“This review found that even small amounts of caffeine can improve lung function for up to four hours.”2

Caffeine is a methylxanthine. It falls into the same family of medicine as theophylline, a strong bronchodilator that was a top-line asthma remedy during the 1970’s through the 1990’s. I was chronically dependent on theophylline from the mid 1970’s until 2007.

Caffeine is a mild bronchodilator

Modern evidence suggests that caffeine, when it is metabolized (broken down) by the liver, forms low doses of theophylline. This might help explain the benefits of caffeine for asthma. 3-5

As a side note here, caffeine is also metabolized into theobromine, a component of cocoa and chocolate. It’s also a member of the methylxanthine family. This would explain why chocolate tends to make people happy. It has been shown to be an equal bronchodilator to caffeine, although not quite as strong as theophylline. Theobromine has actually been shown to be a good cough suppressant too. I will expound further on this in my next post. 6

One study showed that 5 mg/kg of caffeine reached a peak bronchodilator effect in 2 hours and lasted for six hours. This means that a 200 pound man (90 kg) like myself would require (If I do my math right, that’s 90×5) 450 mg of caffeine. 7

To put this into perspective, two tablespoons of Folgers ground coffee contains 60-80 mg of coffee. This makes two 8 ounce cups of coffee. 8

So, we would have to consume 5-8 cups of coffee at breakfast time to achieve the desired bronchodilator effect for the first six hours of your day. Then around 2 or 3 p.m. we’d have to drink up again.

Keep in mind that coffee has side effects

Of course, you would also have to deal with the side effects of coffee, which include trouble sleeping, nervousness, upset stomach, anxiety, headache, etc. It is also known to relax the esophageal sphincter, which can cause gastrointestinal reflux (GERD), which can cause heartburn and asthma.

As a twist here, it was due to these side effects that my doctor and I decided to wean me off of theophylline in 2007. It was a very slow wean, as theophylline, like coffee, is highly addicting. I did not realize it at the time, but only after I was weaned off theophylline did I start drinking coffee. I was aware that caffeine and theophylline were sisters, but I was unaware that caffeine was metabolized into theophylline.

So, while I thought I had been weaned off theophylline, I was, in effect, consuming a small dose every day in my coffee. So, as I was consuming between 600-800 mg of coffee every day, I was pretty much having to deal with the same side effects I was dealing with when on theophylline.

This was effectively why I decided to quit drinking coffee.

My caffeine substitution: Tea

Yes, with all due respect, I still get a small dose of caffeine by drinking tea. It just brings so much joy to the morning as I do my writings that I can’t seem to completely cut myself off. Of course, I can’t help thinking it might have something to do with the fact I’ve been consuming methylxanthines since I was six or seven.

Caffeine is not considered a top-line treatment for asthma. In fact, I have no memory of it ever being brought up seriously in any discussion between my physicians and either my parents or myself. I do not ever remember my mom giving me a cup of coffee during asthma attacks.

However, in the days before rescue inhalers, it probably would have been a viable option. For those with very mild asthma, or for the many people who can’t gain access for whatever reason to the many wonderful asthma medicines now available, perhaps coffee would prove useful. But it will never be a top-line asthma treatment, not like theophylline once was, anyway.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Salter, Henry Hyde, "On Asthma: It's Pathology and Treatment," 1882, New York, William Wood and Company, pages 106-108  (The chapters in this book were originally published as articles in magazines during the 1850’s. The original edition of the book was published in 1860 in London.)
  2. Welsh, Emma, et al., “Caffeine for asthma,” Cochrane Airways Group. 2010, January 20,, accessed 4/7/17
  3. Utoh, M., et al, “Monkey liver cytochrome P450 2C9 is involved in caffeine 7-N-demethylation to form theophylline,” Xenobiotica, 2013, December, 43 (12),, accessed 4/7/17
  4. Gu, L., et al., “Biotransformation of caffeine, paraxanthine, theobromine and theophylline by cDNA-expressed human CYP1A2 and CYP2E1,” Pharmacogenetics, 1992, April, 2 (2), pages 73-77,, accessed 4/7/17
  5. Kohlmeier, Martin, “Nutrient Metabolism: Structures, Functions, and Genes,” 2nd edition, 2015, Elsevier, pages 97-100
  6. Martinez, Pinilla, Eva, et al., “The relevance of theobromine for the beneficial effects of cocoa consumption,” Frontiers in Pharmacology, 2015,, accessed 4/7/17
  7. Simons, F. Estelle R, et al., “The bronchodilator effect and pharmacokinetics of theobromine in young patients with asthma,” Journal of Allergy and Clinical Pharmacology, 1985, December, 76(5):703-7,, accessed 4/7/17
  8. Caffeine Chart. Center for Science in the Public Interest., accessed 4/8/17


  • Shellzoo
    11 months ago

    At a nursing conference I went to one of the jokes told was that nurses drink so much coffee it no longer has a therapeutic effect to keep us awake for long shifts. That said I am pretty sure I drank lots of caffeinated beverages prior to my asthma diagnosis because I felt better and could breath better. I know I used to tell people it seemed to cut down on my coughing and mucus. I wonder how people used to treat asthma prior to modern medicine. Would be fun to find a book about it. I am finding the history of asthma treatments interesting.

  • John Bottrell, RRT moderator author
    10 months ago

    Hi. Shellzoo. Always enjoy your comments. I too have pondered what life would be like before modern asthma medicines. You should (well, if you want) Google Mark Jackson. He’s written books about the history of asthma and the history of allergies. He’s also written a variety of articles on these subjects too (one about “Divine Stramonium: The Rise And Fall Of Smoking For Asthma.”). Could you imagine smoking to get breathing relief? That’s what they did, supposedly, before inhalers were invented in 1956. John. Site Moderator.

  • Shellzoo
    10 months ago

    My grandfather had asthma and I wonder if that is why he smoked cigars.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    11 months ago

    Hi Shellzoo and thanks for this post. In view of your interest concerning the history of medical treatment for asthma, we have a number of articles published on that very subject. It will probably come as no surprise many of the articles are written by our own John Bottrell and Theresa Cannizzaro. You can find them all here:
    Happy reading!
    Leon (site moderator)

  • hrpuff
    11 months ago

    This was really interesting to me! I was diagnosed with adult onset asthma around 5 years ago now. I don’t respond to albuterol and have to use the inhaler Breo Ellipta instead. It took a lot of prednisone, trial and error and time to figure out what I needed.
    Anyways back to the real subject of this..whenever I’d start having an attack, even before I knew it was asthma – all I wanted to do was drink hot coffee. I always thought it felt so good on my throat and it really did help. I still drink coffee when I start feeling an asthma attack coming on. I always associated it to the heat of the coffee contributing to it feeling good but it reading this helped me realize that maybe it was actually helping me. It wouldn’t do much if I was in a full blown attack and honestly coffee would be the furthest from my mind but as long as I was drinking it right beforehand, it did wonders for my symptoms.

  • John Bottrell, RRT moderator author
    11 months ago

    It certainly can take some time sometimes to gain control of this thing we call asthma. Sounds like you managed to figure the best way of controlling yours. Coffee is a mild bronchodilator, so it can certainly be a nice add on to your doctor prescribed controller medicines. And I agree, it certainly doesn’t do much during asthma attacks. Thanks for your comment. John. Author/ Site Moderator.

  • Jymn
    11 months ago

    Late in my life, I started drinking a couple of cups of coffee in the afternoon. It seems to provide, after the initial rush of caffeine, to calm and elevate my metabolism. Recently, I’ve experienced three weeks of breathing difficulty after trying Breo for a week. Two weeks later, back on Advair, a medicine that never given me any issue except better breathing, is not functioning like it used to. I am struggling. Ventolin works for a little while but I often get worse after about an hour. Coffee seems to be the only stabilizing agent to help me cope with this difficult time. Two cups give me relief. While not ideal, it is the only thing I can use to abate the tightness in my lungs that keeps from breathing normally.

  • Leon Lebowitz, RRT moderator
    11 months ago

    Hi Jymn and thanks for your post. It seems your current regimen, inclusive of the coffee, may be working for you now. Have you given any thought to speaking with your physician for a new assessment? Perhaps your medication regimen can be adjusted to gain more control over your breathing condition. What do you think? Leon (site moderator)

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