Here's What Happens to Your Lungs When You Drink Coffee

Missy Crystal

If you have asthma, drinking coffee may alleviate symptoms.
Caffeine can help some people reduce their asthma symptomsPhoto by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

I stumbled through my daughter’s job, lugging my heavy cart to the checkout after she told me it was break time. We had dinner plans, but I was exhausted. I was running on 2.5 hours of sleep, and I usually need a solid 8 to 10 hours to get by.

I decided to grab Starbucks before we ate. After downing my iced brown sugar shaken espresso in the parking lot, I announced that I was ready for dinner. Three shots of espresso can really make you feel like yourself again.

As we waited for our food, I noticed I didn’t just feel more alert. I could breathe better, and my chest wasn’t tight. My breaths were deep and satisfying, and I didn’t feel the air hunger I normally do. In fact, I felt like I had recently used my inhaler even though it remained untouched in my handbag.

After reviewing information from medical professionals, I learned caffeine can temporarily boost your respiratory system if you have asthma. Learn why below, plus discover other essential info about the way caffeine affects your breathing.

What happens to your respiratory system when you drink coffee?

Coffee temporarily acts as a bronchodilator for your respiratory system. Simply put, caffeine makes your airways bigger, which improves air flow. Caffeine does this by relaxing the muscles around your bronchi, making it easier for air to move through your body without disruptions.

Your bronchi are the airways between your lungs and trachea. In laymen’s terms, your trachea is your windpipe. When you inhale through your mouth or nose, the air travels through your trachea and bronchi before reaching the bronchioles of your lungs.

Bronchioles are tiny passages that mimic the appearance of a tree’s limbs. These small airways carry your breath to the alveoli, which are small sacs in your lungs.

How long does caffeine boost your respiratory system?

Caffeine’s effects as a bronchodilator typically last from 2 to 4 hours, says the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America. Because of this, the agency warns asthmatics not to consume any caffeine 4 hours before a spirometry test. Caffeine can impact the results of your lung function test by making it seem like your airways are more efficient than usual.

If this happens, your doctor may mistakenly change your treatment plan because the severity of your symptoms is unknown.

Are bronchodilators the same thing doctors prescribe for asthma?

Bronchodilators, including albuterol, formoterol, and theophylline, are commonly prescribed for respiratory conditions such as asthma and COPD. Research shows that theophylline and caffeine have similar chemical compositions. Because of this, they can both benefit the respiratory system, but they also have the same side effects.

Consuming too much theophylline stimulates the central nervous system and can cause insomnia, a rapid heart rate, headaches, and irritability. The same is true for caffeine, which is why experts often recommend capping your daily intake at 400 milligrams.

Can you replace asthma medications with caffeine?

Caffeine is not a replacement for asthma medications or other medical treatment plans, warns the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America. You should continue following the treatment plan your healthcare team has provided and discuss any possible changes with your doctor.

It’s also important to note that while caffeine can temporarily enhance respiratory function for asthmatics, but people with COPD may not experience similar benefits. In fact, research reveals that while caffeine has anti-inflammatory properties, it isn’t very effective on the type of inflammation associated with COPD.

Additionally, caffeine can actually make COPD symptoms worse for some people. This stimulant makes the heart work harder, and it can also ramp up activity in your lungs. It benefits asthmatics when lung functions increase from caffeine consumption, but these same effects can be dangerous for someone with COPD.

What else should I know about caffeine?

Caffeine can stimulate your respiratory system, which may provide a few hours of relief from asthma symptoms. However, caffeine consumption can also have some undesirable effects on your body, including:

  • Tremors or shakes
  • Increased anxiety
  • Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
  • Mood swings or irritation
  • A higher chance of having a manic episode in adults with bipolar disorder
  • Insomnia or disrupted sleep patterns
  • Increased heart rate
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Headache

These side effects can occur even if your lung function improves when you consume caffeine. Seek medical attention immediately if you or someone you love experiences serious side effects after caffeine ingestion, such as a stroke, seizure, or a heart attack.

Moderate caffeine use may temporarily reduce asthma symptoms, but it’s not a replacement for prescription medications or breathing treatments. If you decide caffeine should play a role in asthma management, let your healthcare team know. Your medical providers can keep an eye on potential side effects, such as dehydration or a racing heart, before they escalate.

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Full-time mom, student, and writer. I cover everything from parenting and personal finance to relationships and health.

O Fallon, MO

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