Thousands of kids have faced serious — and potentially deadly — side effects after consuming energy drinks, new research shows.
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 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. [5 Health Problems Linked to Energy Drinks]
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.
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 said.
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.
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Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.