Treating asthma with coffee

There was an older movie/TV show in which two inexperienced thieves inadvertently kidnapped a young girl. She experienced an asthma attack during the ordeal, and one of the robbers decided to give her a sip of coffee, which calmed her down. I brought this up during my Wilderness First Responder training as we were discussing asthma, and my instructor who is an experienced EMT, was skeptical, suggesting that it would take more coffee than was practical to have an effect. I set out to see whether he was right.

According to Natural Medicines Database, caffeine has moderate effects on reducing symptoms of asthma. The effects may last for 2-4 hours. However, let’s look at what the research says about the necessary dose.

Welsh, et al. reviewed seven trials involving a total of 75 people with mild to moderate asthma. In comparison with placebo, caffeine, even at a 'low dose', appears to improve lung function for up to two hours after consumption. That low dose is less than 5mg caffeine per kilogram of body weight; in other words, for a 185 lbs. guy like myself, I would need about 400 mg, or 4 cups of coffee.

In another study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers compared the effect of different combinations of caffeine and/or albuterol inhalers with placebo, administered to athletes 15 minutes prior to activity. Doses of 6 or 9 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram body weight significantly lowered symptoms of asthma. Now we’re talking the equivalent to 5-8 cups of coffee all at once. It would be easier to eat a couple handfuls of espresso beans.

I guess those kidnappers just got lucky, because it would have taken at least 2 full cups of coffee for her asthma to subside. Hat-tip to my instructor, Brandon Schwartz, for being right on the money.