Caffeine can be disruptive to children and some teens

Sep 8, 2023, 09:50 AM by Dr. Sally Robinson

A hand holding a cup of coffee

Almost everyone knows something about caffeine but most don’t know it is found in about 60 plants.  This naturally occurring drug is found in coffee beans, cacao beans (chocolate), tea leaves, kola nuts and many more.  Caffeine itself is bitter so why do millions, perhaps billions of people, ingest it every day.  It is a stimulant that wakes you up, keeps you alert and improves concentration.

The problem is that like many things too much can be harmful.  Most people consume caffeine from drinks such as coffee, tea, chocolate, and kola nuts (used to flavor soft drink).  Mayo clinic states that up to 400 mg of caffeine a day is safe for healthy adults.  That is roughly four cups of brewed coffee, 10 cans of cola, or two “energy” drinks.  They also say it is not a good idea for children.

Caffeine can be man-made and is added to many products. It is found in some pain relievers, cold medicines and over the counter medicines for alertness such as NoDoz.  Of concern for children and teenagers are the workout supplements or energy drinks that can come in brightly colored containers which look like cold drinks.  They can contain large amounts of caffeine.  There is limited evidence that these drinks improve alertness or physical endurance but there are serious concern for caffeine overdose.

Caffeine overdose in adults can cause restlessness/shakiness, poor sleep, headaches, and anxiety to name a few problems. The symptoms of caffeine intoxication in babies/children might be rapid deep breathing, rapid heart rate, tremors, vomiting, muscles twitching and most alarming shock.  The symptoms of caffeine intoxication and generalized anxiety disorder are identical.  Needless to say if caffeine intoxication is suspected call 911 or Poison Control (800-222-1222).

Remember up to 400 mg a day of caffeine is consider safe for an adult, for teenagers 100 mg a day and for children younger than 12 years 2.5 mg. (Children and pregnant women metabolize caffeine slower.)  There is no legal limit on the amount of caffeine that can be in a product and amazingly there are drinks that contain over 700 mg per FLUID OUNCE.  Many parents and health care providers feel there should be more limitation on the amount of caffeine in drinks, restrictions such as those imposed on alcohol and cigarettes on what is sold to children and bigger bolder listing of the ingredients.  The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states there is no proven safe dose of caffeine for children.

There is much documentation on the benefits of sleep.  A healthy amount of sleep is associated with improved school performance, less anxiety and even longer life.  While a safe amount of caffeine is not associated with any long term problems it is associated with an increase in stomach acid, decreased absorption of calcium, agitation and confusion. Teenagers should be advised to avoid caffeine if they have insomnia, cardiac disorders, panic attacks, anxiety or elevated stress levels.

As always it is important to read the labels.

By Sally Robinson, MD
Keeping Kids Healthy
University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB)

Published August 2023

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