Thousands of kids have
faced serious — and potentially deadly — side effects after consuming energy
drinks, new research shows.
By Tia Ghose for Live Science
More than 5,000 cases of people who got sick from energy drinks were
reported to U.S. poison control centers between 2010 and 2013, and almost half
of those cases were in children who did not realize what they were drinking,
according to research that will be presented Monday (Nov. 17) at a meeting of
the American Heart Association.
Many of these cases involved serious side effects, such as
seizures, irregular heart rhythms or dangerously high blood pressure, the researchers found. And it
was children under age 6 who often consumed the beverages without knowing what
they were drinking.
"They didn’t go to a store and buy it; they found it in the
refrigerator, or left by a parent or an older sibling," said study
co-author Dr. Steven Lipshultz, the pediatrician in chief at the Children’s
Hospital of Michigan.
Energy drinks typically contain high levels of sugar and at least as much
caffeine as a cup of coffee. But the drinks also often tout the energy-boosting
effects of a mix of other ingredients, ranging from taurine and l-carnitine,
naturally occurring amino acisd, to ginseng (a Chinese herb typically used in
alternative medicine). But despite this “special blend” of ingredients, studies
suggest energy drinks don’t boost
attention any better than a
cup of coffee does.
Energy drinks can have nasty side effects, too. In 2007, Lipshultz began
noticing that children and adults who had consumed energy drinks were coming
into the emergency room sick. He began to wonder if a troubling new trend was
occurring. So he and his colleagues began tracking data from poison control
centers around the world.
Related: Alcohol, Energy Drink Mix Tied
to Urge to Drink
In 2011, he and his colleagues reported that cases of illness associated
with energy-drink consumption had skyrocketed, with side effects such as heart problems, liver damage, seizures and even death. In a
separate study, the U.S. government found that emergency-room visits related to
energy-drink consumption grew exponentially between 2005 and 2011, Lipshultz
Now, to see whether the trend has changed more recently, Lipshultz and
his colleagues analyzed case reports from all U.S. poison control centers
between October 2010 and September 2013.
They found that 5,156 cases had been reported to the centers, with about
40 percent involving kids younger than age 6.
In addition, the drinks that included certain additives, such as amino
acids and plant extracts, tended to cause more severe problems than those that
only included the powdered form of caffeine. The extracts may contain
additional caffeine that isn’t tallied on the beverage’s label. Moreover, the
extracts may contain compounds that haven’t been studied well and that could be
causing additional, unknown effects, especially when consumed in combination
with many other additives and caffeine, Lipshultz said.
"You can’t really dissect out what is the effect of ginseng, what is the effect of taurine, what is the effect
of guarana, what is the effect of caffeine,” Lipshultz said.
Most people aren’t aware of energy drinks’ potential to have serious side
effects. As a result, parents and siblings may leave the beverages accessible,
unknowingly putting young children at risk.
"If you ask most people, they’d say teenagers and young adults drink
it, but children may be more susceptible," Lipshultz told Live Science.
Labeling energy drinks with something similar to the Surgeon General’s
warning that appears on cigarettes or alcohol could help reduce some of these
unintentional exposures, Lipshultz said.
Children and adults with underlying risk factors (such as a seizure disorder, arrhythmia or a predisposition to high blood
pressure), as well as caregivers of those children, should also know the risks
and be advised not to consume energy drinks, Lipshultz said.