Side effects of energy drinks cause spike in E.R. visits

Nasty side effects from drinking too many energy drinks are causing a sharp increase in the number of visits to emergency rooms across the country.

A federal report released last month from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that the number of emergency visits involving energy drinks increased more than tenfold between 2005 and 2009.

Public health officials in Kansas are taking note of the dangers of highly caffeinated drinks. The Poison Control Center at Kansas University receives calls from throughout the state about energy drinks.

“Mostly it’s from concerned parents. The kids are drinking these like sodas. It’s becoming part of their daily routine. And it’s stressing the heart out every time they are doing it,” said Tama Sawyer, director of the poison control center.

Too much caffeine causes the heart to beat faster and stronger, raises blood pressure and causes insomnia. Other side effects are headaches and a jittery feeling that turns to more severe anxiety.

“Many people who use energy drinks are in their teens and 20s, and they don’t think they are in danger until something happens, and then they go to the emergency room,” Sawyer said.

The research, which was reported in the Drug Abuse Warning Network, noted that a can or bottle of an energy drink can have between 80 to 500 milligrams of caffeine. That’s compared with a 5-ounce cup of coffee, which has about 100 mg, or a 12-ounce can of soda, which has 50 mg. The report also noted that certain additives (and the most popular brands have quite a few) may compound the stimulant effects of caffeine.

“The listing of caffeine doesn’t seem so bad, but it’s not giving you the full story,” Sawyer said. “It can be more like three cups of coffee per can.”

Too much caffeine

For young adults drinking several energy drinks a day, the caffeine can add up.

The report noted that most researchers and clinicians consider 100 to 200 mg of caffeine per day to be a moderate intake for adults. And they recommend that children and adolescents abstain from all stimulant-containing energy drinks.

Chad Steele knows that too much caffeine can come with some pretty serious side effects. In 2008, when he was a senior at Kansas University, he was drinking two to three energy drinks a day plus a couple of pots of coffee. All that caffeine helped him keep up with a busy schedule; he worked at night, attended school during the day and taught judo.

He knew he had too much caffeine when his eyes started twitching or when his heart began to beat irregularly or too fast while exercising. “I’d stop drinking caffeine and sleep more,” he said and noted he has since stopped drinking energy drinks.

Janice Early, spokeswoman with Lawrence Memorial Hospital, said LMH doesn’t have any data on people coming to the ER with energy-drink-related symptoms, and she doesn’t think it’s a huge problem here.

Alcohol, drugs and energy drinks

Jenny Donham, a health educator at Kansas University, said students are often taken aback when they hear about the negative side effects of too many energy drinks.

“I think people are extraordinarily surprised because they figure if they can order a Red Bull and vodka together that of course it would be safe for them,” Donham said. “If it’s available to them, why can’t they have it?”

The federal study showed that for 44 percent of the emergency department visits, the energy drink was mixed with a pharmaceutical drug, alcohol or an illicit drug, such as marijuana or cocaine.

It also noted that younger drinkers believed that energy drinks could help “undo” the effects of alcohol, making it safe to drive.

The problem with combining energy drinks and alcohol is that the two are on opposite ends of the spectrum. One is a stimulant while the other is a depressant, Donham said.

The energy drink masks signs the body gives off when someone is drinking too much, such as getting sleepy or sick.

“People are using energy drinks as a way to stay awake longer, so they are more likely to drink more, and they are at a greater risk for acute alcohol poisoning,” Donham said.

Even without alcohol, students have to be wary of energy drinks this time of year as they stay up late cramming for finals, Donham said. While energy drinks might make it easier to stay awake, Donham said that without sleep the information isn’t likely to stick.

“You don’t learn the information until you memorize it. And when that memorization occurs is during the sleep cycle,” she said.

The federal study ended the report by noting the need for a public awareness campaign about the health effects of energy drinks, especially when they are combined with alcohol or drugs.

By Christine Metz

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