More than 70 percent of 5,156 calls about energy drinks to U.S. poison control centers involved children, according to a new study presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2014. Exposures to children less than six years old were proportional to the overall database, suggesting accidental exposure. However, children between six and 19 appear to be intentionally seeking out and consuming these products, with some suffering serious cardiac and neurological symptoms.

This disproportionate representation of children and adolescents is concerning given the number of reports of serious cardiac and neurological symptoms, said Steven Lipshultz, MD, the study’s senior author and professor and chair of pediatrics at Wayne State University and pediatrician-in-chief at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. UNM’s Dr. Steven Seifert, professor of emergency medicine and medical director for the New Mexico Poison Center, is the lead author of the paper.

Researchers analyzed October 2010-September 2013 records of the American Association of Poison Control Centers’ National Poison Data System, which contains information calls about energy exposures from the public and healthcare providers to 55 U.S. poison control centers. Researchers found:

  • Of the 5,000-plus reported cases of energy drink exposure, 40 percent were unintentional (i.e. unforeseen or unplanned) exposures by young children.
  • Moderate to major outcomes were reported in 19 percent of non-alcohol-containing energy drinks and in 42 percent of cases involving energy drinks that had been mixed with alcohol. These products were banned by the FDA in December, 2010..
  • Among cases across all age groups with major outcomes, cardiovascular effects (abnormal heart rhythm and conduction abnormalities) were reported in 57 percent of cases, and neurologic effects (seizures, including status epilepticus) in 55 percent.

Energy drinks might contain pharmaceutical-grade caffeine and additional caffeine from natural sources that might cause the heart to race and blood pressure to increase. Energy drinks with multiple caffeine sources were tied to a higher rate of side effects, typically involving the nervous, digestive or cardiovascular systems. Some energy drinks contain up to 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine per can or bottle, compared to 100-150 mg in a typical cup of coffee. Caffeine poisoning can occur at levels higher than 400 mg a day in adults; above 100 mg a day in adolescents; and at 2.5 mg per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight in children younger than 12, Lipshultz said.