Energy Drinks and Sudden Death

Is caffeine to blame for an increase in teen cardiac fatalities?

It’s a heated topic. Most teens and pre-adolescents have an energy drink now and then with no noticeable side effects other than perhaps the jitters or trouble sleeping. Most say they drink them to help them stay up later to study or to stay awake in school. Others say they just like the taste.

Then you have stories like that of Davis Cripe, the 16-year old whose death was caused in May of 2017 by “too much caffeine” according to the county coroner. He had consumed a fast-food latte, caffeinated soft drink, and energy drink within the two hours before he died, which doesn’t seem like an excessive amount of caffeine to some of us who go through a couple pots of coffee a day. But how much is too much for an individual?

Effects of Caffeine on the Body

Cups of black coffee consumed throughout the day have a far different effect on the body than several cans of an energy drink “chugged” one after the other. While the FDA currently lists 400 mg of caffeine as a “safe” level for healthy adults, they discourage caffeine consumption in children and adolescents and no “safe” level has been determined.

Let’s compare caffeine content:

8 oz. brewed black coffee – 65-195 mg, depending on strength of the brew
12 oz Red Bull – 111 mg
16 oz Rockstar – 165 mg
16 oz Monster – 172 mg (1 can is considered 2 servings, each serving listed as 86 mg)
2 oz. 5-Hour Energy Shot – 215 mg
2 oz. 5-Hour Extra Strength – 245 mg
8.4 oz Cocaine energy drink – 280 mg

You can see how energy drinks can claim they have “about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee;” however, when someone sips coffee throughout the day, they are getting a slow dose of caffeine over time. When a teen chugs two 16 oz. energy drinks one right after the other, they are getting a jolt of the substance all at once. We already mentioned caffeine raises blood pressure and increases heart rate. In addition to the caffeine listed, these drinks also contain other substances like sugars, artificial sweeteners, Guarana (which is derived from a South American plant which also contains caffeine), ginseng, B vitamins.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest and Caffeine

The real question is, was it the caffeine which was responsible for Davis’ death, or would he have gone into cardiac arrest without consuming those beverages? Those familiar with our blogs will note we are always trying to get the message across cardiac arrest can happen to anyone, anywhere and at any time. While the coroner found no underlying heart condition during his autopsy of Davis, his case is not unique. Many people go into sudden cardiac arrest without any previous heart problems. Caffeine may have triggered Davis’ SCA, or it could have been coincidental. What we do know is caffeine is a stimulant which increases heart rate and blood pressure, so the correlation is not necessarily too far-fetched. So how do we keep this from happening to other kids?

Should there be warning labels?

Did you know most energy drinks have a disclaimer they are “not recommended for children, pregnant or nursing women, and persons sensitive to caffeine.” Monster goes a little farther recommending its consumers “consume responsibly – limit 3 bottles per day.” Others give guidelines on how drinking a half can a day for a while to gauge effects before increasing consumption. These warnings are on the back, and not highlighted.

Should all energy drinks, or drinks where one serving contains more than the recommended limit of 80-100 ml of caffeine for people over 12 years old, have to have a warning on them? Perhaps an age limit on purchasing energy drinks or drinks identified as having potentially dangerous levels of caffeine is the answer. An extreme measure was taken in Norway, Uruguay, and Denmark, where the aforementioned energy drink is banned completely.

Who assumes responsibility?

If we are talking about food-related deaths in children, would you be surprised to learn each year approximately 10,000 children under 14 go to the hospital due to choking on foods like hot dogs and candy? Of those, about 77 a year pass away. We have not banned hot dogs or candy, and only Oscar Meyer puts a warning on its packaging voluntarily. Efforts have been made by the American Academy of Pediatrics to have all foods which could be a choking hazard labeled as such mandatorily, but have not won over the FDA. Instead, we rely on an effort to educate parents about the dangers of choking hazards, how to prepare foods safely and how to respond if choking occurs.

It is doubtful the FDA would require the same kinds of labeling on energy drinks warning of the dangers of consumption by children and adolescents. As with most foods, it is the responsibility of the consumer to understand what they are purchasing and how it affects their body. Parents should know what is in energy drinks if they decide to purchase them for their kids/teens. If kids and teens are purchasing them on their own, parents need to have a conversation with their children on how much they are drinking, why they are drinking them and make suggestions about better choices. Even WITH warning labels (maybe “advisory label” is more manufacturer-friendly?), it’s doubtful teens would stop drinking energy drinks.

Parents vs. Marketing

What draws teens to energy drinks in the first place? A sweet sugary taste with the promise of a boost of energy? Product names like Monster, Rockstar, and Cocaine? The sponsorships of extreme sporting events and video games? Peer pressure? Commercials with cute cartoon characters sprouting wings? Gaming habits which keep them up longer at night and rob them of the sleep they need to experience enough natural energy during the day? In the end, does it really matter? Teens are going to do things which are bad for them. The best parents can do is maintain an open communication channel with them and hope they have given them the mental tools to know which decisions are the best.

10 Responses to “Energy Drinks and Sudden Death”

February 13, 2018 at 8:29 am, Diann King RN School Nurse said:

may I share this on the school website and/or newsletter

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February 13, 2018 at 8:50 am, AED Superstore said:

Diann – please feel free to share the link to the article.

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February 13, 2018 at 8:40 am, Samie said:

I don’t see tea/Ice tea on the list. I thought that Tea was also high in caffeine

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February 13, 2018 at 8:56 am, AED Superstore said:

Samie – while tea does have caffeine, and should be considered when figuring daily caffeine intake, it does not have the high-profile appeal to teens that energy drinks and highly-sweetened coffee drinks have. You are correct, though, in that it could add to the daily tally.

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February 13, 2018 at 8:45 am, Richard Williams said:

As an EMT I have seen several cases of severe tachycardia, bordering on v-fib, in teens and young adults. In all cases the patients have consumed four or more of the various energy drinks with in a three to four hour time frame. In our service we have a protocol where if we are toned out for a patient under 50 yoa, with symptoms of possible cardiac issues, one of the first questions we ask is have they been drinking energy drinks, and if so, how many in what time frame.

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February 13, 2018 at 8:58 am, AED Superstore said:

Richard – Thank you for commenting, and thank you for your service to your community as an EMT.

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February 13, 2018 at 11:48 am, Cathy Wiechering said:

As a Nurse, Mother, Grandmother, I have experienced how observant children of any ages are of their older family members. Set the example. As a nursing student at Chicago Medical Center years ago, a classmate of mine asked me to help him cross the traffic because he had taken a caffeine pill that morning to stay awake and everything was flying and he could not tell the difference. It is mental as well. Also, stores have these drinks readily accessible at check outs .

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February 13, 2018 at 7:31 pm, Arthur M. Kolle said:

THANKS! More of us need to know ’causes’ to avoid SCA victims resulting from their lack of being briefly informed.

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April 17, 2018 at 7:58 am, DAVID L. SMITH said:

Excellent Blog will share. As an Am. Heart Instructor, I teach 1st Aid / CPR for the local School System. We had a 13 and 16 year old last year and a 12 year old this year go into Cardiac Arrest. We discuss these drinks at every class.

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July 20, 2018 at 7:37 am, Darren said:

Very interesting article. Is it just the caffeine or a combination of the caffeine and sugar?? I am a 50 year old adult and drink these energy drinks regularly as well as an EMT. I have seen a few cases like stated above with chest pain and Tachycardia. I have not seen any cases with the Zero Calorie (Rock Star Pure Zero and Monster Ultra) drinks. What is the story on those versus the standard drinks. I sometimes wonder if these drinks aren’t catching a bad rap? I would love more information.

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