Recently, a 16-year-old high school student collapsed at school and was pronounced dead an hour later. Although no drugs or alcohol were found in his system, he was known to have ingested a significant amount of caffeine in the two hours before his death, including soda, coffee and energy drinks. The cause of death was determined to be cardiac arrest due to arrhythmia, caused by excess caffeine ingestion. With arrhythmia, the heart doesn’t pump correctly, causing a loss of oxygen to necessary organs. Even though this young man did not have an underlying cardiac problem, his heart had stopped beating.
How much is too much?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that adolescents aged 11 to 16 consume no more than 100 mg of caffeine per day, and that children aged 10 and younger consume no caffeine at all. (Healthy adults should limit caffeine to 300-400 mg per day.) The AAP also advised in a policy advocacy statement that it is never appropriate for children or adolescents to consume energy drinks. To put it in perspective, 12 ounces of iced tea has about 70 mg of caffeine. An eight-ounce energy drink has about 80 mg, and a five-ounce cup of brewed coffee has 115 mg of caffeine.
Is my child susceptible? Am I?
This tragic case, while a very rare occurrence, is nevertheless a cautionary tale for parents and kids alike. Caffeine is a stimulant, a substance to be used with caution and one that can pose a health risk, especially for youth. Everyone is different – while some people tolerate large ‘doses’ of caffeine, it’s impossible to know if a young person may be susceptible to too much caffeine until after they’ve ingested it. That’s when the body will tell them that all is not well.
Unlike caffeine-related deaths, emergency room visits due to caffeine are not rare. Teens who’ve had too much caffeine show up in our emergency department with tremors, rapid heart rate and nausea, and in many cases neither they nor their parents suspect the symptoms are caffeine-related.
Are kids and teens drinking more caffeine than ever before?
Studies show that in recent years, consumption of caffeinated beverages has not necessarily increased. However, the types of drinks being consumed by teens have changed. They are drinking less caffeinated soda and more coffee products and energy drinks, which contain greater amounts of caffeine than soda. (Twelve-ounce servings of caffeinated soda contain about 30-40 mg of caffeine each.)
How can I educate my kids about caffeine without scaring them?
Teens have a tendency to think they’re immortal – that nothing bad can happen to them because they’re so young. Tell your teenager about this tragic event, underscoring that although a caffeine-related death may be unusual, they shouldn’t assume it can’t happen to them! Whether teen or adult, pay attention to what your body is telling you – if you feel jittery, queasy or lightheaded after consuming caffeine, cut yourself off and drink water to flush your system. When you’ve had too much caffeine, your body will definitely tell you it’s not good for you.