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Know the Risks of Caffeine in Kids

Last updated: December 4, 2023

Parents should know that caffeine in any amount can impact young people much more strongly than adults.

Dr. Sneha Subbarayan, Pediatrician, ThedaCare Physicians Pediatrics-Neenah

New sports and energy drinks are gaining popularity, thanks in part to an increased presence on social media channels such as YouTube. The advertising and videos connected to these drinks have reached millions of young social media followers.

Along with the fad come health concerns. Many of these products have hundreds of milligrams of caffeine, which is raising alarms among parents and health care professionals.

“Parents should know that caffeine in any amount can impact young people much more strongly than adults,” says Dr. Sneha Subbarayan, a Pediatrician at ThedaCare Physicians Pediatrics-Neenah. “It’s also important to truly understand how much caffeine is in a specific drink.”

Some of these drinks have 100 to 200 milligrams of caffeine. By contrast, a can of caffeinated soda has about 30 milligrams.

Dangers of Caffeine

Energy drinks generally contain stimulants such as caffeine and guarana, a plant product that contains caffeine. These drinks also may include sodium, vitamins, minerals, and sugar protein. The American Academy of Pediatrics says some energy drinks can contain up to 14 times the level of caffeine found in some sodas.

Rapid consumption of about 1,200 milligrams of caffeine can cause toxic effects such as seizures in adults, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Children, teens, and adults can experience a range of effects from caffeine over-consumption, including:

  • Insomnia or trouble getting to sleep
  • Headaches or dizziness
  • Nausea or lack of appetite
  • Anxiety and rapid or irregular heart rate
  • Hyperactivity and increased energy
  • Jumpiness and increased stress hormones
  • Dysphoria (unhappiness)
  • Impaired concentration

“Overconsumption of highly caffeinated drinks can cause toxicity in the body, and even death,” Dr. Subbarayan says.

In May 2023, a British primary school student suffered a “cardiac episode” after drinking an energy drink. Kids with pre-existing conditions also can be at greater risk for caffeine-related health problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children avoid consuming stimulants, including caffeine. In addition, kids under the age of 12 should never consume energy drinks, the group says.

“Water is the best drink for children,” Dr. Subbarayan says. “Adolescents should limit caffeine consumption to a maximum of 100 milligrams per day.”

The FDA says healthy adults can consume up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day. People on certain medications or those who have certain conditions (including pregnancy) should talk to their health care provider about whether it’s safe to consume caffeine.

Sports Drinks vs. Energy Drinks

Sports drinks are different from energy drinks, but they also have drawbacks. They are flavored beverages that normally contain minerals, vitamins, nutrients, and electrolytes. For young people who participate in athletics, the drinks can help rehydrate them after intense activity.

“Sports drinks are not recommended as a substitute for water, however, because they can have a high caloric content, and they are sometimes high in sugar, which contributes to obesity,” Dr. Subbarayan says. “Additionally, the citric acid in some sports drinks can lead to dental erosion if consumed frequently.”

Children and adolescents likely consume some caffeine daily, as the stimulant is often in foods and drinks like chocolate, soda, tea, and ice cream.

“Always check product labels of the drinks your children consume to ensure they are caffeine-free or contain reasonable amounts if your children are over age 12,” Dr. Subbarayan says. “Keep in mind that many caffeinated drinks also contain sweeteners, which also should be limited to protect your child’s health and well-being.”

Overconsumption of sugary drinks can lead to obesity. Almost 20% of children and teens in the United States were obese between 2017 and 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Talk to your kids about caffeine, sugar and nutrition, and help them to understand the risks of the drinks they may be asking for,” Dr. Subbarayan says. “Read food labels with your child, and when they’re old enough, teach them to compare items to make informed choices.”

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Tags: caffeine and kids caffeine risks Energy drinks sports drinks

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