The Dangers of Caffeine

The dangers of energy drinks are getting a lot attention after the death of a healthy South Carolina teen in May of this year from an apparent overdose of caffeine. He drank a McDonald’s latte, a large size Mountain Dew and then “chugged” a 16 ounce energy drink over a two hour period before collapsing. His father, Sean Cripe, explained, “He was a great kid. He didn’t get mixed up in the wrong things. You worry about their safety, their health, especially once they start driving. But it wasn’t a crash that took his life. Instead it was an energy drink.”

Most energy drinks are sweet and easy to drink, making them appeal to teens and even younger preteens. The sheer volume of energy stimulating products makes for easy access by minors. We are seeing more incidents of young children with dangerous side effects from drinking too many caffeinated drinks.

What is Caffeine? Caffeine is a bitter drug produced naturally in seeds and leaves of some plants or artificially made. It can be added to foods or drinks. Sugar covers the bitter taste. Caffeine stimulates the nervous system and causes increased alertness leading to an energy boost and elevated mood for up to 6 hours. It has been used to stimulate breathing in premature infants. It is in tea, coffee, chocolate, some soft drinks and some pain relievers as well as energy drinks.

Side Effects- Too much caffeine can cause headaches (including migraine), anxiety, heart arrhythmias, jitteriness, irritability, panic and anxiety, increased blood pressure, poor sleep, and dizziness. The amount that causes these effects varies from person to person but is increased in smaller persons and children.  It is a diuretic which increases urine volume and can irritate the bladder causing the urgency to urinate more frequently. Caffeine alone won’t cause dehydration but in combination with hot weather, long workouts and insufficient fluid intake, it can be dangerous. It can cause a loss of calcium leading to bone loss over time. Those who consume a lot of caffeine get tolerant to the side effects and may need more caffeine to get the same effects.

Moderation- Caffeine is thought to be safe when used “moderately”. The FDA recommends no more than 400 mg of caffeine in 24 hours for adults (4-5 cups). The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends none for children and not over 100 mg per day for teens.

Withdrawal- If you want to cut back, then do so slowly. Caffeine addiction is not dangerous but stopping “cold turkey” can bring on lethargy, depression, headaches, and irritability or just “brain fog”. When caffeine withdrawal interferes with daily life, it is classified as a mental disorder with a diagnostic code. Start by cutting out one drink a day for one week and then delete another drink per day for the next week until you are consuming only one caffeinated drink per day and then decrease to half of that drink for a week until you are consuming less than 100 mg per day.  Be sure to replace those drinks with other fluids to avoid dehydration. You can then safely stop all caffeine. Be sure to get plenty of sleep and exercise to increase your energy. This can take two weeks.

Professional Pediatrics