Caffeine Overdose Kills South Carolina Teen. That was the headline a few months ago, in May 2017, after a 16-year-old boy downed a latte, an energy drink and a large Mountain Dew and died. Parents, along with coffee addicts around the world, panicked, wondering if they had to now add caffeine to the list of dangers to worry about.
But Christopher Holstege, MD, of the Blue Ridge Poison Center, warns against paranoia. “You would have to drink a lot of coffee to overdose on caffeine. The highest reported caffeine blood level following a survivor of a caffeine overdose was equivalent to 1,000 cups of coffee, for instance.”
Taking too many caffeine pills – about 48 cups of coffee’s worth – killed a man in 2006. But episodes like these — a caffeine overdose causing seizures or a heart arrhythmia that kills — are rare.
Too Much Coffee?
“Caffeine isn’t bad; in fact, evidence shows maybe some benefit from it,” Holstege says, easing the minds of coffee-drinkers everywhere. “Everything is about dose. Drink in moderation.”
What exactly is moderation, when it comes to coffee? That’s where things get murky.
“It’s really hard to know with caffeine and adults, and there’s lots of different literature out there,” Holstege says. According to the European Food Safety Authority, for instance, an adult’s daily consumption of caffeine shouldn’t exceed 400 milligrams, which adds up to about two cups of coffee, a lot of soda, five Red Bulls and two caffeine pills. The Food and Drug Administration here in the U.S., however, has said that five cups of coffee (per day) are safe. The indications have changed over time, adding to the confusion.
Whatever the recommendations, really, the dose of caffeine a person can handle varies. As Holstege explains, “Caffeine is a chemical, and we have different make-ups regarding how our bodies react to different chemicals.”
And this is why Holstege warns us to take the scary headlines with a grain of salt.
“Pre-existing health conditions or genetics play a role,” he says. Connective tissue disease, for instance, increase the risk for an aorta to rupture due to too much caffeine. “There’s been a number of deaths at fairly low doses. But even if someone drinks a large amount of coffee and dies — it doesn’t mean they died from the beverage. We don’t really know. We often don’t hear the final autopsy reports,” just the anxiety-causing headlines.
Caffeine and Children
The indications don’t clear up when it comes to children.
While the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages any caffeine and stimulant use by children, the FDA does not have any regulations regarding children and caffeine.
Studies suggest that energy drinks can be harmful when consumed without caution, especially by young children. And it’s not just coffee and energy drinks parents need to watch for and regulate. You can buy almost anything in a caffeinated form these days: from water and syrup to gum and jelly beans.
Parents should definitely take heed.
“Caffeine is a stimulant, and you can get addicted to it. And children’s brains are still developing. Most prefer children under 12 to avoid it altogether,” Holstege says. And, he adds, teens especially need to limit caffeine intake because of how much sleep they need.
The Biggest Risk: Putting Off Sleep
More than the risk of dying from too much coffee, Holstege expresses his concerns about teens taking so much coffee they don’t get the sleep they need.
“You look around at students these days, like here at UVA, and you see a fair amount of coffee being bought,” he says. “Students will drink a large coffee just before bed as they cram for an exam and expect to go to sleep, but that’s not going to happen. Sleep will be impossible.”
Caffeine has to get metabolized and out of your system, and Holstege says that can take four to six hours, although that varies between individuals.
And if you find yourself unable to go to sleep because you’ve had too much caffeine?
“The only thing you can do is wait it out if you have too much,” Holstege says. “Your body has to metabolize it and can only do that so much.”
He notes that both teens and adults can get in an over-caffeinated state and “take depressants or sleeping pills because they can’t sleep at night – it becomes a vicious cycle.” If your teen is using pills to stay awake and study, you may need to intervene.
Caffeine Overdose: What to Do?
If you’re worried your child has overdosed on caffeine, in whatever form, call the Blue Ridge Poison Center.
Avoid the Caffeine Cycle
Avoid the cycle by planning, Holstege says.
• Don’t cram in middle of night
• Don’t take stimulants like caffeine in the evening before going to bed
• Never take drugs that are not prescribed to you, such as Ritalin or Adderall
• Read labels – don’t forget that many sodas have caffeine
• Caffeine can augment medicine, so be careful to read prescription labels/talk to your doctor
“If you need to stay awake in a dull meeting, sometimes just the motion of drinking any kind of liquid can help,” he suggests. “Drinking plenty of water each day is a good substitute.”