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Recreational Use of Energy Drinks Causes Caffeine Toxicity in Teens

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Caffeine Drinks

A recent seven-year study shows that recreational use of energy drinks can cause caffeine toxicity in teens that can manifest with serious symptoms of cardiac and neurological toxicity. Read on to discover just how much caffeine is in an energy drink that may or may not be accurately reflected by the ingredient labeling on the energy drink’s container.

The prevalence and persuasive marketing techniques promoting energy drinks to teens who cannot legally buy beer, but desire a drink that can provide feelings of euphoria, has led to an increasing trend in the recreational use of energy drinks that causes caffeine toxicity manifesting as hallucinations, seizures, arrhythmias and cardiac ischemia.

The recent publication in the Medical Journal of Australia of a 7-year study designed to describe the epidemiology and toxicity of caffeinated energy drink exposure tells us that energy drink abuse among teens is a serious and growing problem.

Of 297 reports occurring between 2004 and 2010, 217 were classified as being recreational users. Recreational users are defined as those who intentionally ingest multiple doses of energy drinks for the purpose of gaining euphoria or other psychotropic effects.

Of the 217 recreational users, 100 admitted to also taking alcohol or other caffeinated products with their energy drinks. Eighty-seven percent of the recreational users experienced symptoms such as palpitations, agitation, upset stomach and tremors. Furthermore, 21 had signs of serious cardiac and neurologic toxicity. Of the 217 recreational users, 128 required hospitalization with only 57 having had taken something else (e.g. alcohol, caffeine tablets and/or drugs) along with their energy drinks.

Energy drinks contain varying amounts of caffeine, ginseng, taurine and guarana extract— an extract from the plant Paullinia cupana, which contains approximately 40–80 mg of caffeine per gram of extract— as well as a variety of amino acids, vitamins and carbohydrates.

A typical energy drink is labeled as containing 160 mg of caffeine; however, some companies do not include the caffeine content from the guarana extract in the total caffeine count. Therefore, the caffeine content may be as high as 300 mg per can.

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In comparison a typical caffeinated soft drink has approximately 40 mg of caffeine per can; a cup of coffee anywhere between 25-200 mg of caffeine; and, a No-Doz/No-Doz Plus tablet has 100 mg of caffeine per tablet.

While the caffeine content from a single can of energy drink is not of concern for a healthy individual, death can occur if there is an underlying heart condition.

In 2009 an otherwise healthy 28-year-old man had a cardiac arrest after a day of motocross racing during which he consumed excessive amounts of an energy drink throughout the day. Doctors postulated that that a combination of excessive doses of caffeine- and taurine-containing energy drinks in conjunction with strenuous physical activity produced a myocardial ischemia by inducing coronary vasospasm.

However, in a healthy person even as little as 50 mg of caffeine can induce tachycardia and feelings of agitation.

The lethal dose (LD-50) of caffeine in humans is estimated to be about 150 to 200 milligrams per kilogram of body mass, which comes to about 80 to 100 cups of coffee taken within a short period. While this is a pretty much a nearly-impossible amount of coffee to drink, there are reports of as little as 2 grams of caffeine resulting in overdoses that required hospitalization.

Therefore, if a teen were to consume five cans of an energy drink at 300 mg of caffeine per can in additional to five 100-mg caffeine tablets, then the total is 2000 mg (2 grams) of caffeine—easy to do and enough to send a teen to the emergency room. In fact, if the teen is below average weight, then toxicity becomes even more severe. Even under unintentional, non-recreational use, toxic levels could be easily reached without the teen realizing the danger he or she was entering into.

The authors of the paper conclude that given the clear evidence of toxicity and the growing number of hospitalizations involving recreational use of energy drinks causing caffeine toxicity in teens, that health authorities need to increase awareness of the problem, improve package labeling and regulate caffeine content.

Image Source: Courtesy of Wikipedia

References: “Energy Drinks: Health Risks and Toxicity” Naren Gunja and Jared A Brown; MJA 2012; 196 (1): 46-49