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Report Finds Energy Drinks Risky for Kids

Researchers Says Poison Centers Are Getting Calls About Caffeine Overdoses in Children
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Feb. 14, 2011 -- A new research review finds that kids are big consumers of caffeinated energy drinks, and experts say the beverages may be giving young users unsafe amounts of stimulants.

The special article, which is published online in the journal Pediatrics, sounds the alarm about the increasing number of health problems tied to caffeine use in youngsters. It calls for more caution with the popular beverages, which are often sold in brightly-colored cans with bold graphics and frenetic sounding names that may be particularly attractive to tweens and teens.

According to the review, 30% to 50% of adolescents and young adults report using energy drinks, and consumers younger than age 26 represent half of the rapidly growing $9 billion market for these beverages in the U. S. These beverages can contain three to five times as much caffeine as an 8-ounce serving of soda.

But a spokesman for the American Beverage Association disagrees with the report, noting that caffeine has been well tested and is generally deemed safe.

Caffeine Overdoses in Kids

The researchers report that in 2008 there were more than twice as many cases of caffeine toxicity reported to the nation's poison centers each year in children as there are in adults.

“I really wouldn’t have expected the number of calls that reported caffeine toxicity in children less than age 6,” says study researcher Steven E. Lipshultz, MD, who is chair of the department of pediatrics at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

Researchers found roughly 1,200 cases of caffeine toxicity reported to U.S. poison control centers each year in children younger than age 6 from 2006 through 2008.

And roughly half of all caffeine overdoses in the U.S. in 2007 occurred in children younger than 19.

“It is shocking,” Lipshultz says.

It’s impossible to know, however, how many of those might have been related to energy drinks because they were not tracked as a separate category in the years covered by the review.

But other countries, including New Zealand and Germany, have documented increasing tween and teen consumption of energy drinks, sometimes with ill effects.

Reported outcomes linked to the consumption of energy drinks in Germany, for example, have included liver damage, kidney failure, respiratory disorders, agitation, seizures, psychotic conditions, high blood pressure, heart failure, and disruptions of heart rhythms, among others, according to the review.

“Children and adolescents are more susceptible to the adverse health effects of caffeine compared to adults,” says Mary Claire O’Brien, MD, an associate professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. 

“Part of that may be that their livers are not used to caffeine consumption regularly. So the first time that kid buys an energy drink that contains 300 milligrams of caffeine and drinks it, he’s not like his mom or dad and sits down and has a cup and a half of coffee each morning. He’s never been presented with that chemical before, and it’s a drug,” says O’Brien, who has studied the health risks of energy drinks to kids but was not involved in the current review.

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