Are Coffee & Tea Good for Asthma & Bronchitis?

In a person with asthma, irritants or allergens irritate the airways, causing them to contract and tighten. This make it more difficult for air to get to the lungs. Asthma patients may make a wheezing or whistling sound as they breathe, the result of trying to force air through these narrowed airways. They may also cough in an attempt to clear the airways. Bronchitis produces similar symptoms to asthma, but in bronchitis the air passages are inflamed and swollen, usually due to an infection. Immediate treatment aims at opening the airways to allow for a freer passage of air. This is usually achieved with medications known as bronchodilators. Caffeine, found in coffee and tea, can act as a bronchodilator.

A cup of coffee and tea on an ethnic table. Credit: Judith Hoppe/iStock/Getty Images

Caffeine as a Bronchodilator

In 1993, Dr. Scott T. Weis of Harvard Medical School studied 20,000 asthma patients and found that those who regularly drank coffee suffered one-third fewer symptoms than those who abstained. Caffeine, the stimulant found in coffee and tea, is chemically very similar to theophylline, a drug used to treat asthma and bronchitis. In Weis's study, tea had no effect on the asthma patients, possibly because tea has lower levels of caffeine than coffee. A cup of brewed coffee has between 40 and 180 mg of caffeine, while a cup of tea contains 25 to 110 mg. If you suffer from asthma, drinking coffee every day could help relieve some of your symptoms, but it is no substitute for medication.

Theophylline in Tea

In addition to caffeine, tea contains some natural theophylline. But the amount of theophylline in tea is much smaller than that used to treat asthma. A cup of brewed tea contains a little more than 1 mg of theophylline, while the theophylline used to treat asthma contains 100 to 400 mg per dose. While tea may have other health benefits, it has no demonstrated effect on asthma or bronchitis.

Contraindications

While Weis's study showed that ongoing coffee drinking could help alleviate some asthma symptoms, the bronchodilators used to treat asthma and bronchitis are usually used as inhalers during an attack. Inhaling the medication delivers it directly to the lungs and promotes an immediate reaction, something you can't do with a cup of coffee or tea. Turning to coffee or tea to fend off an asthma attack won't provide quick relief and could be dangerous. Depending upon the cause of your asthma and bronchitis, coffee or tea could make the problem worse. A condition called laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR) a type of acid reflux, can irritate the lungs and throat and cause the wheezing, coughing and mucous build-up associated with asthma and bronchitis. If LPR causes your asthma and bronchitis symptoms, the caffeine and acid in coffee and tea could worsen your symptoms.

Precautions

Asthma and bronchitis are serious conditions that, if left untreated, could lead to severe breathing difficulties and even death. Don't attempt to treat these conditions with home remedies. Instead, consult your doctor and be sure to follow his instructions precisely. You may need prescription medication to control your symptoms. If your bronchitis is dues to an infection, you may need treatment with antibiotics to prevent the illness from progressing to something more serious, such as pneumonia. A combination of medication and lifestyle changes, such as avoiding allergens, can help you breathe easier once more.

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