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Poison control experts say the amount of caffeine and other stimulants in popular energy drinks poses a significant health risk to older children, teens and young adults.

Caffeine-charged drinks have become popular items among teens and college students, often consumed at parties and for late-night studying.

Peggy Kinamore, RN, BSN, CSPI, public education coordinator at the Missouri Poison Center at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center in St. Louis, explains that the caffeine levels in energy drinks are double to quadruple that of a typical can of soda – sometimes giving youngsters far more stimulant than is considered to be safe.

When consumed in moderation, the risk is lower and the drinks may be safe, but that’s not how kids frequently drink these beverages, Kinamore continues.

“They’re more often guzzled,” she says. “Most are loaded with sugar so they taste good and kids at a party will down a full can or two cans very quickly.”

Symptoms of caffeine overload can range from mild nausea and upset stomach to more severe problems including heart palpitation and chest pain. “You can actually feel your heart pounding in your chest,” Kinamore says.

The Poison Center gets regular calls from anxious parents. Kinamore says that when symptoms are mild, parents are advised to observe the child or teen at home until symptoms subside. But if symptoms are worse, including irregular or rapid heartbeat, the young patient must to the emergency room.

Kinamore notes that the level of caffeine in energy drinks, as well as stimulants such as ginseng, guarana and taurine, is not regulated. The drinks are marketed as supplements, not as beverages.  Many people also mistakenly think of caffeine as a food rather than a drug.

The FDA limits the caffeine content of cola-type drinks to 71 milligrams per 12 fluid ounces, but no limit is required on energy drinks. Caffeine levels often range from 80 to 200 milligrams per can, depending on the brand, compared to 34 milligrams in some soft drinks.

A 12-ounce cup of coffee contains 200 mg of caffeine, but adults sip coffee – not gulp –and do so often enough that they build up a tolerance, Kinamore says.

In addition to the general effects of caffeine on older kids and teens, Kinamore says there is concern for young athletes who consume energy drinks, which are marketed to boost performance and replenish fluids.

Caffeine is a diuretic drug and can cause water loss. Studies on the effects of caffeine beverages on dehydration are mixed, but Kinamore says that many studies point to dangers in the combination of vigorous exercise, sweating and consuming a strong caffeine beverage.

A further concern of energy drinks is consumption at parties by young adults to mask the effects of alcohol. Kinamore says young people and even adults sometimes have a misconception that caffeine drinks will improve driving safety by reversing symptoms of alcohol impairment.

Kinamore adds that experts agree caffeine does not correct the effects of alcohol, and in large quantities can make an impaired driver even less able to focus: “And that definitely could be a tragedy.”

Kinamore suggests that parents monitor consumption of energy drinks by youngsters and try to educate them about caffeine levels. “Talk to your teen and college student about caffeine drinks, alcoholic beverages, the combination of both caffeine and alcohol and the dangerous consequences,” she says.

Kinamore adds that it’s also important to know that some energy drinks contain alcohol and sometimes are on store shelves next to the non-alcoholic brands. This can cause confusion, so it’s important to read the label.

Anyone who has questions about energy drinks, alcohol, medicines or any other potentially hazardous substances can call the Poison Center. A single nationwide toll free number, (800) 222-1222, routes all calls to regional centers.

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